OPELOUSAS, La. — In a quiet lobby off the main hall at the Equine Sales Company, a livestock auction house that doubles as an event space, Gerald Toussaint, 56, sat quietly Sunday morning with his personal leather-bound Bible.
He wore a navy suit, tie, shoes and hat, and he kept in his pocket a white towel embroidered with “RGT,” for Reverend Gerald Toussaint. “I get sweaty,” he explained.
Toussaint was preparing to deliver an Easter sermon to the congregation of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, where he has pastored for 13 years and where his father led for 21 years before him.
Sunday’s sermon was especially meaningful because, as Toussaint put it, “Somebody decided to burn our church down.”
Mount Pleasant burned April 4 and was the third predominantly black church destroyed by arson in St. Landry Parish in a span of 10 days, following St. Mary Baptist Church in nearby Port Barre and the Greater Union Baptist Church, also in Opelousas. Holden Matthews, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, has since been charged with arson and state hate crimes.
The Easter season is a fitting metaphor for recent events, Toussaint said.
“Resurrection is a new beginning,” he said. “It was dark the day Jesus was crucified. It was a dark night they burned the church.”
What has happened since, Toussaint said, “is like a resurrection. A new start. Old things are gone, but it’s going to be a new start after.”
Mount Pleasant suffered a total loss in the fire: the building it occupied for 140 years and its pews, office equipment, choir stand, piano and more.
But the greatest loss was the church’s heritage, said Earnest Hines, 66, a member for close to 40 years. Hines, who plays piano for the church and leads its Sunday school, said his mother-in-law attended school at the church during a time when access to education was limited for black people in the rural South.
“All those memories of that building, and that place has been burned,” he said.
Sunday morning, some 50 congregants trickled slowly into the auction house, many wearing colorful Easter attire and carrying their own well-worn Bibles.
Before services began, members worked to turn the space into a makeshift church, using binder clips to pin white tablecloths down, turning on battery-operated votive candles and configuring extension chords to plug in the sole keyboard that would provide the day’s music. Through the back windows, massive horse stables and sprawling green fields were visible.
The burning of three small country churches in Louisiana initially drew little national attention, but the fire at France’s Notre Dame on April 15 inspired support for the Louisiana churches as well.
“As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana,” Hillary Clinton said via Twitter.
A GoFundMe campaign started by the local Seventh District Baptist Association raised $2.2 million for the churches as of Sunday evening, and the Community Foundation of Acadiana started a second fundraising campaign.
“This [crime] is not a reflection of who we are as a community locally and regionally, so it’s important for people to step up to the plate to help these churches to get back on their feet,” said Raymond Hebert, the foundation’s president and chief executive. “Each has congregations that are over 100 years old and are an important part of the fabric of our community.”
“I got a call this morning from a men’s Catholic group that wants to contribute,” Hebert said. “That’s the kind of thing we are hearing. It doesn’t matter the denomination. It doesn’t matter the race. Everybody is stepping up to the plate, which is impressive.”
A donor provided the PA system the church used for its services Sunday. The auction house contacted Toussaint to offer his congregation this space, which they can use free of charge each Sunday, except on auction days. A donor in nearby Crowley, La., gave the church the lectern from which Toussaint would deliver his sermon. The pastor picked it up himself, he said, and added castor wheels so it can be easily rolled out of the auction house’s way. Someone in North Carolina has offered to restore the church’s pulpit, which was severely damaged but left standing.
“We got $1,000 from an atheist,” Toussaint said with a laugh. “He said he didn’t believe in God, but he don’t believe in burning buildings down, either.”
Hines said church members have been moved by the outpouring of support. “You wish that we as a nation would have come far enough now that we don’t have things like this to happen,” he said. “But we got support from all across the nation. That tells you what kind of nation we have.”
“People are more together than the divide that’s being portrayed about our nation, about the South, about race,” Hines said.
At this morning’s service, Rylee Prejean, 13, recited a poem about the fire. “The building is gone, but the church is still here. It burned to the ground, but we will not fear,” she read, prompting a standing ovation from many members of the congregation. “With God’s grace, church, we will rebound.”
Toussaint went on to lead a loud and joyful sermon, punctuated by Hines’s punchy keyboard, applause and affirmations from the congregation. He removed his glasses as he built up a trickle of sweat.
“It was the first day when they set the church on fire,” Toussaint declared. “But on the sixth day, we found out who did it.”
The case is now in the hands of the St. Landry Parish district attorney’s office. Investigators continue to fine-tune the evidence in the case, said Ashley Rodrigue, a spokeswoman with the state fire marshal’s office. St. Landry Sheriff Bobby J. Guidroz said his office would support them in that investigation. The FBI has not yet made a determination about whether Matthews will face federal hate crime charges.
“Even before they said it was a hate crime, I never looked at it like that,” said Vera Roberts, 61, who has belonged to the church for 35 years. “This young man is very, very sick. Maybe through prayer he’ll get the help he needs.”
“Things happen for a reason,” said Chwayne Espree, 27, whose family has attended the church for four generations. “I’m just glad they found out who it is.”
“I’m feeling good because I know it’s going to get better,” said Marcus Andrus, the 10-year-old grandson of Toussaint.
Such optimism ran high after this morning’s services, when church members gathered in the gravel parking lot outside the equestrian center.
“I got my joy — my everything — back,” Virgie Espree, 69, said of the sermon.
Toussaint’s focus is now on rebuilding. The church must still file insurance claims and then begin the work of cleaning up, he said. The new building will stand where the old one did, this time with security cameras and alarms.
Yesterday, Hines stopped by to look at the rubble that was once his church. On the damaged pulpit, he found the nub of a candle a well-wisher had left to burn.
“That was so heartwarming,” he said. “To know that somebody is saying unto us, ‘There’s still light.’ That’s what Christianity is about.”