The pastor of one of three African-American Baptist churches burned in the same Louisiana parish in 10 days said with a suspect in custody, he believes the congregations will emerge stronger than before.
“I believe their sermons are going to be stronger, because a lot of people want to make it a hate thing,” Pastor Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, said in a Thursday morning press conference announcing the arrest of 21-year-old Holden Matthews on charges of simple arson on religious buildings.
“Well we don’t represent hate,” the pastor said. “We represent love, togetherness, peace, longsuffering, hope.”
“That’s what we’re here for today, to say not just to our community but to our country: Be strong. Love one another. Be patient with one another. Help one another. Guide one another. Train up your children in the way they should go,” he said.
Matthews, son of a deputy in the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, faces up to 15 years on each of three counts of state felony charges. Authorities say they are still vetting possible motives, and if “bias motive” is established the FBI is prepared to pursue it as a federal hate crime.
Matthews, who has no history of violence or previous arrests, posted on social media about his interest in “black metal,” a sub-genre of heavy metal rock music that in countries outside the United States has been connected with arson directed at Christian churches.
“Nobody should ever fear for safety in their house of worship or fear that their church will be destroyed,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said at the press conference.
“I don’t know what this young man’s motive was,” said Edwards, a Roman Catholic and Democrat who defeated Republican U.S. Senator Vitter in the race for governor in 2015. “I don’t know what was in his heart, but I can say that it cannot be justified or rationalized. These were evil acts.”
The governor said the rash of fires targeting African-American churches “has been especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear” still haunting the American South.
All three are located within the boundary of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, voluntary affiliate of the Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention and National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
Prior to the arrest, the association announced a service of unity and prayer for church families affected by the church burnings scheduled at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 14, at Little Zion Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana.
For Pastor Toussaint, Wednesday afternoon’s arrest brought a sigh of relief.
“Now I can go to sleep,” he said at this morning’s press conference. “Even though I pastor two churches, I have a full time job driving an 18-wheeler. It’s been strenuous, but now I can sleep.”
Toussaint said his church plans to rebuild and has received offers of help from all over the country.
“I’ve heard from pastors and ministers in the area that I’ve never talked to in my life,” he said. “We are going to start a network within the community of pastors, preachers and churches to come together.”
“These things turned out to be a wonderful thing,” Toussaint said. “It started off a dark moment in our life, but I think with the rebuilding process you’re going to see some things in the future that’s going to be very bright for our churches.”