OPELOUSAS, La. – On a sunny Sunday after earlier weekend rain and storms had passed, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards led a unity service here to bring families together from three churches lost to arson in recent weeks.
Congregations from three historically black churches – St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church – gathered for a Palm Sunday group service at Little Zion Baptist Church near downtown Opelousas.
The three churches, each with generations of history, burned over a 10-day period, the targets, police say, of 21-year-old Holden Matthews, the son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy. He was arrested last week, charged with the fires that haunted this St. Landry community.
But Sunday’s service was a celebration of unity, a time for the families left without their churches to join with visiting pastors and officials from across Louisiana in a service intended to uplift this community.
“Today we have an opportunity to come together and perform a clergy of our love for our fellow brothers and sisters in their time of need,” said Rev. Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association.
The Voices of Victory choir led the church throughout the service, and donations were presented by local and surrounding parish churches to help aid their efforts in rebuilding the three institutions, including a $2,000 donation to each from Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
“I am originally from this community,” said Russell Ledet, a member of Omega Psi Phi. “My family is linked to the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church and many of our ancestors are linked to that cemetery.”
The fraternity, founded at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., “denounces any form of disrespect towards centers of worship, particularly the three African American churches burned in St. Landry Parish and Louisiana and resolve to support these institutions in their efforts to rebuild and encourage our members to do the same,” Ledet said.
The three congregations could have been filled with heartache, anquish, even anger at this service in the wake of their loss. But they shared hope and faith instead Sunday, and a commitment to come back stronger in the face of the tragedy.
“This gathering says a lot about this community, it says a lot about these churches and the people who live here,” Edwards told the congregations.
“What you all in this community and congregations have is an example of faith and an example for the state of Louisiana. Today is Palm Sunday, and Palm Sunday is when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant victory into Jerusalem,” he said. “And while hearts may be heavy today because of the burden we have and churches that need to be rebuilt, I hope this tragedy can be turned into a triumph of faith, hope, and love.”
“It is our obligation to forgive and really, it’s actually more than that. Matthew 5: 44: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ We need to pray for Holden Matthews. I know sometimes that doesn’t come naturally to us as human beings, but that is what we are called to do,” Edwards said.
“Let’s pray for him and his family that he will become a better person. I know you will rebuild. A lot of churches have come together to rebuild your churches. You are going to rebuild and you will have young people and maybe not so young people being baptized in those churches.”
Other officials who attended the service included State Fire Marshall Butch Browning, who led the investigation that resulted in the arrest of Matthews last week; St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot; and Opelousas Mayor Julius Alsandor.
Many of the families affected by the fires have been involved with their churches their entire lives.
Joe Durio, a Port Barre, Louisiana, native and New Orleans chef, would drive more than two hours to Port Barre from New Orleans each Sunday to attend service at St. Mary Baptist Church.
“I was the fifth generation of my family to attend St. Mary Baptist Church. I would drive in from New Orleans every week to come to church and this has been hard to spend it with all of my relatives who raised me to go back and see nothing left there. It’s been very hard but there is a strong faith that has come out of this and our church,” said Durio.
“I’m looking forward to having a bigger and better congregation,” he said.
There were many locals from the community who came to show their love and support to the families, such as 55-year-old Michael Singelton.
“This congregation was wonderful. The service helps lift our community and puts a fire in us to do better. I pray that the Lord goes into that young man’s soul and fills him with the real fire. You know we all need a change of heart,” said Singelton.
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