PORT BARRE, Louisiana — From her front steps, Debra Mallet can see the plot of sandy-colored earth where her church once stood.
It was where her daughter got married and where her husband is buried, a sacred house of memories that, on a rainy spring night in 2019, was reduced to ashes while she slept.
“It was hard, because if I looked outside, I’d see the rubble. If I went to work I’d see it,” Mallet said. She pointed to a well-loved leather Bible that’s become more worn since the fire. “That’s been my guidance right there.”
St. Mary Baptist Church, Mallet’s beloved sanctuary, was the first of three historically Black churches set ablaze in St. Landry Parish by Holden Matthews, the white 23-year-old son of a local sheriff’s deputy. Matthews torched St. Mary, Greater Union and Mount Pleasant Baptist churches over a 10-day span between March 26 and April 4 in 2019.
On Oct. 16, a federal judge will sentence Matthews to up to 70 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to three counts of intentional damage to religious property and one count of using a fire to commit a felony. For a usually-quiet South Louisiana community rocked by 10 days of blazing terror, the sentencing will bring the only sort of closure the criminal justice system can offer three congregations rendered homeless by the fires.
Still, waiting 18 months for that closure has been a trial of faith for members of the three churches.
“It’s taking its toll on everyone,” said St. Mary Rev. Kyle Sylvester. “Not just us but the community. … Keep praising God, keep the faith in what Christ has done for you and keep going. But at the same time, the flesh, the natural man, has to go through the process.”
No matter the sentence handed down, Matthews’ crimes have forced the congregations to weigh a complicated question: What does justice look like for a faith founded on forgiveness?
Security camera footage and social media messages obtained by law enforcement show Matthews didn’t just plan three arsons. He took pictures of the fires and sent them to friends. In the cases of St. Mary and Greater Union, he recorded videos of the infernos and watched the flames burn for nearly an hour at both sites before they were reported to 911.
“I pray that he will be saved,” Mallet said. “If we would hold grudges and everything, what are we as a church? What are we as Christians? We have to learn to be forgiving and try to build from it.”
In the aftermath, Sylvester reminded his congregants that they had lost only their church building, not their church and not the fabric of faith that holds a church together.
At Mount Pleasant, Rev. Gerald Toussaint eagerly shared the Biblical signs he discovered among the burnt bricks.
“The day the fire was, it was pouring down raining,” Toussaint said. “The day they told us they caught him, it was a very beautiful, sunny day. The Bible tells us when Jesus was crucified … it was very dark and started to rain. When he rose from the dead, it was a beautiful, sunny day. That has resonated with me. I know he’s present with us. It blesses my heart.”
The parishioners’ path to reconciliation was not without anguish. Mallet, who speaks of anger like a 4-letter word, admits that she felt something close to it the night she woke up to a phone call from her son telling her the church was in flames. The day Matthews was arrested, she again felt resentment. She asked for her church’s prayers while at Bible study later that day.
“I’ve got to have love for him,” Mallet said of Matthews almost a year later. “The act that he committed, I have to understand that it’s not for me to pass judgment on him. I can hate the crime, but I can’t hate him.”
Arson not race-based but fires stoke familiar fear
The fear Matthews brought to St. Landry Parish, a rural community about two hours west of New Orleans, is a familiar one for Black churches across the South, said Christopher Strain, a Florida Atlantic University professor who studies the history of American church fires.
“A racial terrorist knows two things about Black churches: He knows that they’re traditional seats of power to the Black community, and he also knows that they’re vulnerable, soft targets,” Strain said.
In the 1960s, white supremacists burned and bombed Black churches during the Civil Rights movement. In the 1990s, when a surge of arsons prompted the establishment of the National Church Arson Task Force, nearly a third of the 945 arsons investigated targeted Black churches; 43 percent of those occurred in the South. In 2015, at least six predominantly black churches were burned in the South in the week after Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, though at least two were not deemed to be arson.
The fire at St. Mary raised suspicions among parishioners since it had rained that night but there had been no lightning. After Greater Union met a similar fate, the late Rev. Harry Richard, who oversaw the church, said he hoped they were both accidents. Two days later, Mount Pleasant burned, setting off whispers about racial targeting.
After Matthews’ arrest, law enforcement assured the community he was the sole assailant and stilled fears of more church fires. A search of his messages by law enforcement revealed that he set the fires as an homage to the church burnings conducted by Norwegian black metal artists in the 1990s, according to court records.
In Facebook messages, Matthews lamented to a friend that media outlets were trying to make the burnings about race. He also said he chose the three churches because they were made of wood and easier to burn than the area’s Catholic churches.
“Holden Matthews is following in that tradition that extends not only back to Dylann Roof, five years ago, but extends further back into the 1960s and to the Civil Rights era,” Strain said. “He says he was trying to boost his black metal cred, whatever that means, but the fact that he burned three predominately African American churches is hard to ignore.”
St. Mary parishioner Sandra Smith, who was working offshore when she received news that her church caught fire, drew a similar connection.
“I just went back to earlier years when that was the norm, when it was normal to do such a thing back in the Civil Rights days: burning down churches, putting bombs in churches,” Smith said. “When it first happened, I was angry. Extremely angry. I hated him for what he did.”
Smith’s mother was buried at the church. In the following months, her son and brother died. She buried both behind where the church once sat, and its absence added to the loss.
But along with her fellow parishioners, Smith began to actively search for peace through her faith. The resentment was too heavy a weight to carry forward.
“We can’t judge him for what he did. Only God can judge him,” she said. “Just from a human standpoint…yeah, put him in prison. But that’s not what it’s all about. He’s a sick individual that needs help. He needs Jesus.”
A faith that ‘can’t be burned away’
In the Book of Daniel, three Hebrew men named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into fire, only to escape unscathed due to their faith in God.
In many ways, the three St. Landry Parish churches still bear wounds from the flames. St. Mary relocated to an unmarked strip mall storefront that felt more like a hideaway than a home. None of the churches have been rebuilt.
But like the three men, the churches continue to survive on their devotion.
“I’m not going to say we escaped unscathed, because the little church that was there, it was symbolic of our faith and our togetherness,” Smith said. “But out of that we’re going to get bigger.”
Mount Pleasant has started to erect a new building, and an outpouring of donations means Toussaint will be able to build long-anticipated additions such as a carport and an expanded worship center.
Like many churches, St. Mary moved to online services earlier this year due to COVID-19, and Smith said they’ve drawn hope from an unexpected boost in membership.
On Oct. 4, the congregation held a parking lot service, the first on church grounds since the fire. Smith said the moment was “strange” but “still felt like home.”
“That’s what God is allowing right now. That little church that burned wouldn’t be big enough to hold the people that he is sending to us,” Smith said.
St. Mary’s church may still be gone, but a new worship center was recently completed on the same plot of land and will be able to house the congregation after the pandemic. The worship center’s concrete had been poured before the fires and was one of the few things to escape damage. A day or so after the church burned, Mallet saw the construction materials arrive.
“Maybe a blessing in disguise,” Mallet said.
Sitting on her couch thumbing through her Bible, Mallet begins skimming the passages that have helped her the most since her normalcy went up in flames. Romans 12:14. “Bless those who persecute you.” Romans 12:17. “Pay no evil for evil.”
As she reads, a single plaque hangs on the wall behind her: “A house is made of walls and beams, a home is built with love and dreams.”
“The memories we made in the church, to us the building was a sacred place,” Mallet said. “But when you come to realize that the sacred place is in your heart, that can’t be taken away.
“It can’t be burned away.”