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Black churches in Louisiana see $1.9 million surge in donations after fire at Notre Dame Cathedral

Before Tuesday, the Louisiana churches had received less than $100,000 in donations.

A cemetery is seen behind the charred ruins of he Greater Union Baptist Church, one of three historically black churches recently burned down in Louisiana. Donations to a fund supporting the churches have skyrocketed since April 16.
A cemetery is seen behind the charred ruins of he Greater Union Baptist Church, one of three historically black churches recently burned down in Louisiana. Donations to a fund supporting the churches have skyrocketed since April 16.
Gerald Herbert/AP

A fundraising effort to support three historically black Louisiana churches burned down in recent arson attacks has seen a tremendous surge in support in the wake of a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, raising more than $1.9 million in donations as of Friday afternoon.

The wave of donations started on April 16, one day after a massive fire damaged parts of the historic Paris church, sparking a flood of international support. On Tuesday, three of France’s richest families pledged to donate more than $500 million to efforts to rebuild the cathedral; the Trump administration has also promised to provide aid.

With efforts to support the Notre Dame Cathedral drawing massive sums, activists, journalists, and politicians took to social media in the US to note that as the fundraising effort continued, people should also pay attention to the Louisiana churches, which were left reeling by arson and had been struggling to reach their donation goal. The message was further amplified by figures like former secretary of state and former first lady Hillary Clinton, journalist Yashar Ali, and retired NFL player Benjamin Watson.

“It is imperative that we show this community and the entire country that these types of acts do not represent who we are,” Watson, who has been active in fundraising efforts for the past week, noted on Twitter.

A GoFundMe fundraiser to support the churches has been active since April 10. The fundraiser is being hosted by the Seventh District Baptist Association, a group of 60 churches active in southwest Louisiana, and is also supported by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and the pastors of the three burned churches. The fundraiser notes that all of the money raised “will be disbursed equally among all three churches for not only rebuilding their sanctuaries, but for the purchase of all necessities lost in the fires, including pews, sound system, musical instruments, etc.”

The fundraiser initially sought to raise $600,000 for the churches, but after reassessing the damages, the amount was tripled to $1.8 million. On Tuesday morning, the campaign had raised less than $100,000 according to the New York Times. By Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had raised roughly $1.4 million. By Friday the campaign had raised more than $2 million, exceeding its donation goal.

After the Louisiana church fires, “all you see is charcoal”

The three churches, all of which were located in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish, were intentionally burned over a 10-day span in late March and early April, according to local officials. The first fire occurred on March 26 at St. Mary Baptist Church. On April 2, Greater Union Baptist was burned. Two days later, flames destroyed Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. The fires were investigated by local authorities with the assistance of the FBI and ATF.

On April 10, police arrested 21-year-old Holden Matthews — a white man and the son of a local sheriff’s deputy — for allegedly setting the blazes. Matthews, whom local authorities said “demonstrated the characteristics of a pathological fire setter,” has now been charged with arson and hate crimes charges. Matthews could also face further federal charges. He is expected to go on trial in September.

When the church burnings first came to national attention in early April, the fires were quickly compared to a long history of attacks on black churches in the US, including the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, the wave of fires at 145 black churches across the US from 1995 to 1996, and the 2015 mass shooting of black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the wake of the Charleston shooting, several fires at black churches across the country fueled concerns of a wave of arson targeting black houses of worship.

“For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African-American community,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson noted in an April 8 statement. “As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been targets of violence.”

In Louisiana, authorities initially avoided suggesting that the three fires were racially motivated. Congregants noted that the fires had claimed decades of history, reducing bibles, century-old financial records and documents, and handwritten sermons to ash.

“All you see is charcoal,” Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Baptist Association, told the New York Times. “It’s a total, complete loss at all three sites.”

Even with the surge in funding, the churches face a long road ahead as their congregations begin the process of rebuilding. The Times notes that while each church had insurance, the coverage is limited and will not cover all of the costs. Jack added that the churches will also need to be built to fit standards passed after Hurricane Katrina, requirements that will likely increase the costs of the rebuilding efforts.

Members of the Louisiana churches say that they are prepared to move forward, that the fires have not shaken their faith, and that they are thankful for the outpouring of support. “It’s going to help our community,” Rev. Gerald Toussaint, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, told CNN. “What the devil meant for bad, God’s going to turn it into something good.”