If a person were to incinerate three Louisiana synagogues, three Louisiana mosques or three Louisiana Kingdom Halls, it would be a safe assumption that the arsonist was deliberately attacking Jews, Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are not many synagogues, mosques and Kingdom Halls around — at least not compared to the number of churches. Thus, it wouldn’t make sense to broadly interpret either set of hypothetical crimes as an attack on religion.
But the 22-year-old man who torched three Black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish, which is mostly White and mostly Catholic, insists that when he was looking to express hatred for Christians as a whole, he picked the three churches because they had a lot of wood. And not, you know, a lot of Black people.
Of course. The wood. The racial composition of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church and Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas and St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre had nothing to do with Holden Matthews’ decision to set their houses of worship on fire. The only churches he encountered that he thought he could effectively burn down were Black.
Matthews, who was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison Monday, may actually believe that he was a non-racist torcher of churches and that racist hatred had nothing to do with his crime. After all, in a computer message he sent a friend on April 5, 2019, he wrote, “Baptist churches just have a lot of wood on them lol. Catholic Churches are like solid f***ing rock.” That same night he wrote, “I f***ing hate the media so much. Of course they are making it a race thing.”
It is Matthews who made it a “race thing.” It is he who decided that “for all the suffering and oppression (Christians) have caused to everyone,” he would set three Black churches on fire. In his online exchange around the time of his crimes, he wrote, “Pretty much every race every type of people in the wortd (sic) has been forced into becoming christian.” It’s probably too much to ask a church arsonist to have a coherent political philosophy, but a person angry at Christianity’s record of oppressive activity wouldn’t attack the descendants of enslaved Africans who were likely introduced to the faith in bondage.
It is often the case that people who do the most despicable things against Black people argue that they’re not racist — as if racism is worse than the despicable thing they did. That’s what Matthews and his defenders have done since he was identified as the culprit: insist that he just hated Christians, not Black people.
Disturbingly, the U.S. government seems to have taken the same position. Federal prosecutors didn’t accuse Matthews of carrying out the crimes with a racist intent. We must wonder if the decision to not suggest Matthews had a racist motivation reflects the current Justice Department’s discomfort with acknowledging the violent racism that continues to plague the country. Whatever the reason, the feds convinced a grand jury to just indict Matthews on three counts each of intentional damage to religious property and using fire to commit a felony.
But it’s impossible for Black churchgoing folk anywhere in this country to see their church on fire and not assume one or more racists is responsible. In this case, those Black people are in the South — where White people repeatedly burned and bombed Black churches in response to civil rights activity — and the perpetrator is White. They’re supposed to buy that the fires are the payback for the Crusades? Payback for colonialism?
Rev. Kyle Sylvester, the pastor of St. Mary Baptist Church, acknowledged in court that Matthews and the federal government say racism wasn’t the motivation, but the three targeted congregations couldn’t help but connect the destruction of their churches to racial hatred. “It’s not being called racially charged,” Sylvester said, “but those emotions, those sentiments, were there.”
Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, was born near Montgomery, Alabama, during the civil rights movement and he correctly predicted that when St. Mary’s was set on fire, that it wouldn’t be the only church that burned. “I understood we were in trouble and thought we could be burned too.”
There’s a reason that Hines thought his church in particular could be burned and not just any church in the parish. Let’s not pretend it’s because his church contained a lot of wood.
As U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays sentenced the 22-year-old Matthews to 25 years in federal prison Monday, he said that “the record reflects these fires were not set on account of race but your hatred for religion. But the impact of the crimes is that it terrorized these communities and made them recall a very dark time in our history.”
It doesn’t feel long enough ago to count as history. Dylann Roof, who was the same age Matthews was at the time of his crimes, slaughtered nine people inside Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston just five years ago.
And you can bet that the older members of the churches Matthews burned have various stories of hatred that they could tell. The Rev. Gerald Toussaint, 58, told a reporter Monday, “When they desegregated, we had to go to school in a predominantly white neighborhood and the kids, sicced a dog on us, they egged our house, right here in Opelousas.”
One wonders what material Toussaint’s childhood home was made of.