On the Monday after Easter, Pastor Gerald Toussaint made another trip to what was left of his Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana.
The navy suit, blue tie and dress shoes that Toussaint wore to preach during two Easter Sunday services had been replaced by a work shirt. His pants and steel-toed work boots were now covered in ash as he rummaged through charred pieces of wood, salvaging what little had not been damaged by fire or water.
With the help of one of his deacons, Toussaint removed a small podium, then went back to retrieve a larger, blackened wood podium, still fixed where the pulpit used to be. It was the original, Toussaint said, built when the church was founded 145 years ago. It stood where generations of families gathered to praise and worship every Sunday. Where his father had preached for 21 years, the longest stint of any pastor, until Toussaint, 56, took over 14 years ago.
Toussaint looked up for a moment to admire the beautiful blue sky with perfect, puffy white clouds, a stark contrast to the red brick structure crumbling in the background. The sky reminded Toussaint of the day two weeks ago when he learned that the 21-year-old white arsonist allegedly responsible for setting Mount Pleasant Baptist ablaze was arrested.
“When Jesus died on the cross, the heavens opened,” Toussaint said. “It got very dark and it started raining. That’s how it was when he burned the church down. It was pouring down raining. But when they found him, it was pretty like this. A beautiful day.”
On April 4, Mount Pleasant Baptist became the third historically black church to go up in flames within a 10-day span in St. Landry Parish. The first fire was reported on March 26 at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Louisiana. The second fire occurred on April 2, less than 10 miles away at Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas.
The suspect, Holden Matthews, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, was arrested and charged with two counts of simple arson of a religious building, one count of aggravated arson of a religious building and three hate crime counts. He pleaded not guilty to all counts and is being held without bond.
Despite the chaos and mourning, Toussaint and parishioners from all three churches remain optimistic and hopeful for the future. It’s something that Toussaint wants to encourage among his congregants, which is why he chose the theme “Only Believe” for his Easter sermon. Toussaint found the story of Doubting Thomas from the Gospel of John to be fitting under the circumstances.
“Thomas said, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I shall not believe,’ ” Toussaint said. “Jesus came back to him and said, ‘Here, Thomas. Put your finger here. Reach out your hand and put it to my side.’ He said, ‘You believe because you’ve seen, but blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ Stop doubting and believe.
“We know that we, as a church, we’re going to restore. I knew that God was going to reveal the guy who did it. It didn’t take but six days. I told them at church that the Lord created the Earth and the heavens in six days and on the seventh day, they rested. The first day, [Matthews] burned the church down. On the sixth day, they caught him. On the seventh day, we all just sat down and relaxed because they already had him. We didn’t have to worry about nobody burning another church down.”
Ten miles down the road at Greater Union Baptist Church, member Florence Milburn battled a wave of emotions. Milburn, 52, looked at the dilapidated structure that still holds fond memories of her upbringing.
“This is the only church I’ve ever belonged to,” Milburn said while staring at the rubble. “The first night, I was devastated, bellied over, crying like I’d lost my mom. It was an awful feeling, like someone had just stolen everything of value to you. The first two days, my sisters and I cried a few tears. But we’re so prayerful that we know that God is in the midst of everything, so we got our hope back and think about the memories we’re still holding on to.”
Milburn comes from a family of 12 children who all grew up in the church. It’s where she was baptized as a child and where her children were baptized. Both of her parents, who were married for 69 years and died three months apart in 2018, are buried behind the church. All three churches that burned have cemeteries that hold generations of families directly behind their structures.
It will take time for Milburn to forget what it was like to get the call that the church was on fire and watch helplessly as the blaze engulfed the entire structure.
“I live about 15 to 20 minutes away, but the drive felt like an hour to two hours,” Milburn said. “We were coming, and we were hopeful that maybe it was just one little part or a corner. But [on the road leading to the church], you can smell the burning. Immediately when I smelled the burn, I started wailing and crying. I couldn’t breathe.”
The black church, particularly in the Deep South, has been the heart and soul of the community for centuries. It is a place to worship and praise freely, speak to God without restrictions, gather with family, whether you were related by blood or not. Black churches were one of the only places where anyone and everyone were meant to feel welcome and safe.
Until they started burning.
Black church arsons in America date back to the 1800s, experienced an upward swing in the 1950s and ’60s, and caused waves of terror in the 1990s. Racists and hate groups used the burnings to instill fear and paranoia within black communities, taking away one of the most constant safe spaces residents had. Before the St. Landry Parish church fires, the last reported church burnings in Louisiana occurred between February and June 1996. On Feb. 1 that year, four churches were set on fire on the same day in Zachary and Baker. After six months of investigation, it was determined that the churches were targets of hate crimes. Three other churches in Baker, Paincourtville and Shreveport also burned that year.
Although the history of church burnings is well-known to those in black communities, the most recent fires were another painful reminder of the past that many history books, and those in denial, attempt to bury under the guise of progress.
Toussaint questioned the actions of Matthews as he continued to dust ash from church remnants.
“What’s going through the minds of people these days?” Toussaint asked. “He’s a young man. Where would that come from, from a 21-year-old young man? He should know nothing about racism. But he knows what he’s been taught. You can train a child to shoot a gun, but if you fill it with hatred, he’s going to use that gun [for evil]. You can train a child to light a campfire, but when you fill his heart with hatred, this is what you get.”
Toussaint pointed to the unstable structure, which continued to collapse days after the fire.
“That’s the results.”
There were, however, uplifting signs and hopeful gestures from not just the communities in Opelousas but from around the world.
Before the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris on April 15, donations to the GoFundMe page designated to help the three churches had barely reached $100,000 of their $1.8 million goal. Former New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson was one of the first to announce his pledge to help rebuild the churches, and he spread the word about the fires through his Twitter feed. After the Notre Dame fire became a trending topic on Twitter, others joined in to spread the word about the fires in St. Landry Parish. Today, the donations continue to pour in and sit at $2.1 million.
As Milburn continued to talk about church memories, a silver car pulled to the side of the road and slowly approached the church. Two elderly white women rolled down their windows, greeted Milburn with a smile and offered their condolences.
“We’re so sorry to hear about your church. We’ve been praying for you, and we hope you all are able to rebuild soon,” one of the women said. They rolled their windows up and continued on their drive. Those are the signs of hope that lets Milburn know the community can only grow stronger from here.
“I guess you can call it a crazy kind of faith, but we just feel untouchable,” Milburn said. “God has just been so good to us. Ain’t nothing gonna happen to me, because God got us. My faith never wavered.”
Down the road, Toussaint approached a storage shed where he placed items from the church that he plans to restore in the future. In the middle of a folding table was a Bible that seemed to be in good shape, save for mild water damage due to the rain.
“The Bible was opened when we picked it up. This is the page it was on. Psalm 23,” Toussaint said.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
“Joshua says, ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified,’ ” Toussaint said. “That’s what you’ve got to do. The future is bright. God said, ‘I’ll make your enemy your footstool.’ He sure got a footstool comin’.”