Investigators in Louisiana are working to determine whether several fires at historically black churches are connected.
There have been four fires in the past two weeks, three of which were in the same county. The other was at a church more than 220 miles away.
Both the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms are investigating the fires.
‘The church is not that building. The church is the people’
Authorities have determined there are suspicious elements in each of the three church fires in St. Landry Parish, not far from the town of Lafayette, according to a statement from the state fire marshal.
“There is clearly something happening in this community,” said state fire marshal Marshal “Butch” Browning in a statement.
A spokesperson for the marshal’s office noted that investigators have not confirmed connections between any of the fires.
There have been no injuries at any of the churches, as each building was unoccupied at the time of the incidents.
The first fire was reported on March 26 at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, in St. Landry Parish.
Five days later, at about 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, March 31, a fire was reported at Vivian United Pentecostal Church in the northeast corner of the state. The state fire marshal confirmed in a news release that “after assessing the scene, collecting evidence and gathering witness statements, it was confirmed the fire was intentionally set.”
The next fire was reported in St. Landry Parish on April 2, at the Greater Union Baptist Church, which is located about 11 miles from St. Mary Baptist Church.
The fourth and final fire was reported on Thursday, April 4, at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, about seven miles from the Greater Union Baptist Church.
Rev. Gerald Toussaint, the pastor at Mt. Pleasant, told ABC News the damage is “bad,” and “the only thing that’s left is the front of the church, the corridor when you go in” but the rest of the church was severely damaged.
“They’re heartbroken,” Toussaint said of his parishioners, “because our church has been around for 145 years.”
“They’re pretty heartbroken but they’re faithful. They’re strong,” he said.
Toussaint said when the other churches reported fires, he thought to check that his church’s insurance papers were all in order as a precaution.
He said the church did not have any security cameras in place, but, “I tell you what: once we rebuild, we’re going to be full of security cameras.”
“The church is not that building. The church is the people. The building is the sanctuary where we meet, so if we stay together as a congregation, the church is alive and well. We can rebuild the building as long as we stay together,” he said.