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FILE – In this April 4, 2019 file photo, firefighters and fire investigators respond to a fire at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, in Opelousas, La. Authorities have arrested a person in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana, a federal prosecutor said. The suspect was in state custody, U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph announced late Wednesday, April 10 in a news release labeling the fires “despicable acts.” (Leslie Westbrook/The Advocate via AP, File)
NEW ORLEANS – The crowdfunding campaign to raise money for three African American churches gutted by arson in Louisiana began a week ago, but donations surged after flames engulfed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the outcry provoked a conversation about the disparate reactions to the tragedies.
Nearly $1 billion had been pledged to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort within hours of Monday’s blaze. The massive attention focused on the French landmark prompted Megan Romer to take note and tweet: “My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church is also one of the world’s wealthiest entities. If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.”
GoFundMe spokeswoman Aja Shepherd confirmed in an email that giving to the destroyed Louisiana churches increased Tuesday after Romer’s tweet and a challenge from freelance journalist Yashar Ali to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.
Other online reminders of the black churches’ plight followed, including this Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana.”
Donations that totaled about $300,000 nearly a week into the campaign surged to $1.5 million by Wednesday night. The money is to be distributed equally among the three century-old churches to help them recover from the fires intentionally set from March 26 to April 4. White suspect Holden Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.
Among the calls for more giving to the black churches, there was concern that they were already being forgotten as flames leapt from the roof of Notre Dame.
“It’s terrible what happened to Notre Dame. … But, 3 black churches in LA were purposely burnt down b/c of hate. Let’s not forget to be even more outraged about that,” Twitter user Joe Boyd wrote.
Native American Terrell Johnson, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and member of the Assiniboine Tribe, wondered: “Why are we not as worried about these sites being hurt that are historic to our minority groups, rather than majority groups?”
“It shows how little we are valued. These black churches, the mosque, Native American sites, they are not as valued as Catholicism or Christianity in that aspect, and it’s frustrating,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview.
But journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a series of tweets, took issue with the notion that concern about Notre Dame could be boiled down to a matter of race.
“It’s a tragedy when black churches + mosques are bombed, burned or vandalized, but of course the world pays more attention to an 800-year-old architectural masterpiece in the heart of a city everyone visits! That’s not white supremacy, and nonwhites who love Paris aren’t dupes,” he wrote.
The Rev. Roderick Greer of St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopal place of worship in Denver, acknowledges that Notre Dame has higher visibility as a cultural, artistic and religious landmark than the three rural church buildings in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish.
Still, in a Wednesday interview, he questioned whether white Americans would pay as much attention even if the fire happened at high-profile black churches, such as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta or Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Even if Mother Emmanuel or Ebenezer or 16th Street Baptist Church went up in flames, do white Americans, in particular, have the same emotional and visceral connections that they have to Notre Dame, which is on another continent?” said Greer. “That’s such a telling commentary on the white American imagination that support for black churches lost to arson surged only in the wake of a historic European cathedral fire.”
The Rev. Mason Jack, an officer with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, which includes the burned churches, said Wednesday he was grateful for the surge in donations. He acknowledged that the Notre Dame fire raised consciousness about the Louisiana fires but downplayed any concerns that black churches were being overshadowed or forgotten.
He said publicity surrounding all of the fires helped increase awareness of the need in Louisiana. “Maybe, for some, it was an awakening for them to bring healing and restoration,” he said.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story.
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