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Hate crime charges added in La. church arsons

OPELOUSAS, La. (BP) — Hate crime charges have been filed against a white man accused of arson that destroyed three Louisiana black Baptist churches more than a century old.

Holden Matthews, 21, pleaded not guilty April 15 to the charges in St. Landry Parish Criminal Court, according to the St. Landry Parish Clerk of Court’s office. Matthews is charged with three counts of hate crimes, two counts of simple arson of a religious building and one count of aggravated arson of a religious building, and was denied bond.

James Jenkins, who is coordinating Louisiana Baptist Convention (LBC) outreach to the pastors whose churches burned, told Baptist Press, “Whatever reason it would occur to a person to burn a church or any other piece of property, I think when this type of thing occurs it causes friction in the communities, and the effects may be long-lasting if we’re not very careful.”

The pastors’ churches are affiliated with the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., (NBC USA) whose president Jerry Young preached at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in St. Louis. Mount Pleasant and Greater Union Baptist churches in Opelousas and St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre lost their buildings in the fires. No deaths were reported.

Edward Alexander Jr., president of the Louisiana Missionary Baptist State Convention of the NBC USA, has pledged support to help the churches rebuild.

“Church attendance is an act of faith and in the United States of America no one should worship in fear,” Alexander said in an April 11 press release. “These churches are built on a foundation of hope and faith in Christ Jesus; hatred cannot and will not triumph.”

Southern Baptist pastors in Louisiana are already making plans to help financially, Jenkins said, and the LBC is working to finalize its outreach assessment by the end of April after insurance companies respond. Several agencies also are working to help the churches, Jenkins said.

“I’m just hoping that out of this hate … there’s a rebirth of love,” Jenkins told BP. “Hence that needs to be the LBC response, to take this opportunity really to love on some people and make sure that the communities … here in St. Landry Parish and Opelousas understand that our churches are clearly on the side of love, clearly on the side of our Christian brothers and sisters.

“We hold dearly the right for people to congregate, to worship in the manner that they see fit, without any problems, without any bother,” Jenkins said. “We believe that in the end, heaven is going to be made of all nations, all tongues and all creeds. Since that is so, we just best learn to love each other here.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke at a service of unity, prayer and healing Sunday (April 14) at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a National Baptist congregation in Opelousas.

“Hate is not a Louisiana value,” Edwards was quoted by The Baton Rouge Advocate as saying. “We will not be measured by what happened here in this community by the acts of that young man, but we will be measured rather by how we respond, which is what we’re doing today. It’s what we’ll be doing for the next several weeks and several months.”

Matthews, on a Facebook page under the name Noctis Matthews, has spoken ill of Baptists, KTLA5 reported April 15, saying Matthews wrote he wished “most blacks people would look into ancient beliefs of pre Christian Africa.”

See BP’s previous reports here and here.