As It Happens

3 black Louisiana churches reduced to 'smoke and rubble' in recent weeks

Sheryl Richard was baptized and married in the Greater Union Baptist Church. She watched all four of her children and grandchildren get christened there. And last Tuesday, she watched it burn.

Sheryl Richard describes watching the church she grew up in burn to the ground in front of her eyes

Firefighters and fire investigators respond to a fire at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Opelousas, La. (Leslie Westbrook/the Advocate via AP)

Update: Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old man, faces three counts of simple arson of a religious building related to the three church fires, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Thursday. Federal investigators are looking into whether hate motived the fires, he added. Reports say Matthews is the sheriff deputy's son.

Story transcript

As Sheryl Richard watched the church where she was baptized and married burn to the ground last week, she joined her fellow worshippers in prayer.

On April 2, in the dead of night, she and the other members of her congregation stood in the streets of Opelousas, La., watching the flames "shooting up skyward" from the Greater Union Baptist Church — one of three predominantly black Baptist churches to burn in Louisiana in recent weeks.

"Watching it come down in flames, it was horrifying. Very heartbreaking," Richard told As It Happens host Carol Off. "We stood together arm-in-arm, embracing one another, trying to comfort one another as we watched this horrific scene."

The fire came exactly one week after flames ripped through the St. Mary Baptist Church in nearby Port Barre, La. on March 26, and two days before Mount Pleasant Baptist Church burned down in Opelousas on April 4.

Fires deemed 'suspicious' 

The fact that all three churches' congregations were predominantly African-American has raised suspicions that these were racially motivated attacks - but authorities have not yet said they suspect arson. 

During a news conference Thursday, Fire Marshal H. (Butch) Browning said it wasn't clear whether the fires in St. Landry Parish are connected and he declined to get into specifics of what the investigation had yielded so far. However, he described the blazes as "suspicious."

"If you're going to turn to a house of God, turn to it for resurrection," he said.

The FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined local authorities in the investigation.

Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. (Butch) Browning speaks during a press conference addressing three recent church fires in his parish. (Leslie Westbrook/the Advocate via AP)

Like her father and her father's father before her, Richard has spent her whole life worshipping at Greater Union, marking more birthdays, baptisms and weddings than she can count.

She's the superintendent of the Sunday School and the vice-president of the women's auxiliary. She watched all four of her children and four of her grandchildren get christened there. Her parents and her paternal grandparents are buried in the churchyard.

All of this was front of mind as she watched the church burn. 

"Your mind floods, it runs with many memories," she said. "You're thinking: how could someone take all of this away in a moment?

Sheryl Richard, left, at her oldest granddaughter’s baptism/first communion at the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, La, one of three predominantly black churches to burn in Louisiana since April 2. (Submitted by Sheryl Richard)

Later that day, after the sun had come up, she returned to scene of the fire to see what remained. 

"All you saw was smoke and rubble," she said. "It was nothing but a horrible sight to look at — a beautiful, historical church that had stood there for 130 years now in rubble. Ashes."

An open seat for 'Mr. Firestarter'

U.S. Congressman Clay Higgins, a Republican who represents a district that includes St. Landry Parish, posted a video on Facebook on Sunday in which he stood in front of the rubble of St. Mary's Baptist Church and addressed the arsonist who he presumed was behind the fires.

"I advise you to hear my heart and turn yourself in," Higgins said. "You're going to jail one way or another."

Louisiana State Fire Marshall vehicles are seen outside the Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2. (Louisiana Office Of State Fire Marshal via Reuters)

But the Greater Union Baptist Church had a different message.

When churchgoers gathered for Sunday service last week at a local lodge. Rev. Harry Richard placed an empty seat next to his lectern, reserved for someone he called "Mr. Firestarter."

For Sheryl Richard, it was a welcome overture.

"It doesn't matter what your sin is. God is a forgiving God. God is a just God. And he encouraged us to do just as God would do — to forgive and open our hearts and pour out love and compassion upon that unknown individual," she said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Sheryl Richard produced by Morgan Passi.