Church fires in La. spur Baptist outreach, care

by Diana Chandler, posted Tuesday, April 09, 2019 (one month ago)

A shell remains of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, destroyed in a series of fires investigators said have "suspicious elements."
Louisiana State Fire Marshal photo
ST. LANDRY PARISH, La. (BP) -- Bert Langley lives just two miles from Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, the latest building destroyed in a series of fires at black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish, La.

Langley, director of missions at Acadia Baptist Association (ABA), drove to the church site looking for pastor Gerald Toussaint who, according to news reports, works full-time as a truck driver. Langley found only a fire marshal surveying the remains of the church, which is said to be more than a century old.

"If we can help them find a meeting place, that would be the big thing right now," Langley told Baptist Press today (April 9). "We know the church didn't burn. That's just the building."

Langley has communicated with James Jenkins, Louisiana Baptist Convention church planting director, and First Baptist Church of Opelousas, a Southern Baptist congregation in the southcentral Louisiana community.

"We're going to try to get some of the ministers together in the area and see what we can do to help them," Langley told BP. "Our own Louisiana Baptist Convention African American representative, James Jenkins, called me yesterday. We're going to do what we can. It's just going to be a matter of trying to establish contact with them and find out what their situation is."

A Louisiana State Fire Marshal van shines light on the remains of St. Mary's Baptist Church in Port Barre, La., one of three historically African American churches destroyed in a string of suspicious fires still under investigation.
Louisiana State Fire Marshal photo
No one perished in the fires that have "suspicious elements," the Louisiana State Fire Marshal's office (SFM) said in its latest press release. While an official determination of arson has not been made, the SFM told BP today, the incidents have evoked memories of racially motivated fires at black churches during reconstruction and the civil rights era.

Ronnie Floyd, president-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, called the fires tragic and requested prayers for the congregations.

"I am praying the spirit of hope and triumph rises up greater than ever in each one of these churches as they demonstrate the power of God's love and forgiveness even in this hour," Floyd told BP. "Please join me in praying for these churches."

Fires destroyed Mount Pleasant and Greater Union Baptist churches in Opelousas, and St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, all non-Southern Baptist congregations.

Ken Weathersby, SBC EC vice president for convention advancement and a former Louisiana church planter and pastor, expressed sadness and hope.

"I know that the investigation is still ongoing, but it seems very suspicious to me," Weathersby told BP. "It is my prayer that the people of God who have been affected will continue to press toward the goal of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

"I know that my God is able to bring good out of this terrible situation," Weathersby said. "I will continue to pray for the churches involved."

The fires spanned 10 days in late March and early April, and are being investigated by local, state and national officials.

"We are considering the fires suspicious at this time, but have not made an official determination on any of them," Ashley Rodrigue, SFM public affairs director, told BP today. "Our investigation continues to move forward toward finding that answer each day."

Opelousas is a majority African American town of about 16,000 people, while Port Barre's 2,000 people include about 500 blacks, according to 2016 demographic data.

Both towns are in the coverage area of the Acadia Baptist Association where Langley serves.

"We don't really know what's going on," Langley said, "other than that it seems to be all connected. And the little bit that [investigators are] letting us know about it is, for some reason it appears they're targeting African American Baptist churches."

"We [are] … just praying down here that God will lead them to find out whoever it is, and they get them off the street," Langley said, assuming a perpetrator is involved, "so they don't continue to burn buildings."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press" general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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