“I’ve seen arson activity in the city, but the degree to what I’m seeing with churches being the target, no,” Mosby said, explaining that he has never seen something similar. “It’s not a north city issue. It’s not a north county issue. It’s a St. Louis issue.
“We’re encouraging residents to keep their eyes open.”
Early Thursday morning, the Shrine of St. Joseph Catholic church became the seventh church hit in a recent series of church fires that have been set across the city. Authorities said someone torched the doors to the church’s rectory. Like almost all other cases, authorities said, the flames did not spread into the building.
Parishioners have called the arson attacks “destructive” and “disappointing,” and say it “disturbs the heart.”
St. Louis’s African American community is still recovering from the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown and a grand jury’s decision not to charge former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for pulling the trigger. It’s a community that, despite distance, remembers the nine African American parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., who were shot and killed — and weeks later, the churches that started burning across the South.
And it’s a community that has worried about similar crimes closer to home, especially as news came out that many of the churches had predominantly African American congregations. But Mosby said Thursday that one church was mixed-race, and the most recently torched church had a predominantly white congregation.
“We believe that this fire-setting activity is meant to send a message,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said this week in a statement. “We believe this activity may be the result of stress experienced in the subject’s life.”
The church fires began rattling the community Oct. 8 when Bethel Nondenominational Church in Jennings, a small town neighboring Ferguson in North St. Louis County, was found in flames. Two days later, nearby New Northside Missionary Baptist Church was set on fire, authorities said.
New Northside Missionary Baptist Church posted a message on Facebook the next day, saying: “Satan is busy, but my God is greater! Someone tried to set our church on fire, but the only fire that’s burning is the fire we’re having on the inside!”
Then came fires in St. Louis city: St. Augustine Catholic Church on Oct. 14, New Testament Church of Christ on Oct. 15 and then New Life Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday.
In the predawn hours Saturday morning, New Life Missionary Baptist Church — recently renamed United Believers in Christ Ministries — became the fifth St. Louis area church to be set ablaze this month. The door had been set on fire and the flames crept through cracks and crannies, even a mail slot, and roared through the building. Within moments, its members were without a home.
“There’s been speculation that this is a white man coming against black churches, but we don’t know that,” David Triggs, pastor of New Life Missionary Baptist Church, told The Washington Post. “It could be a black man coming against black churches. We don’t know if there’s any race barrier to this; but we know it is a sin issue and it has to be addressed as such — through prayer.
“There’s so much division among the body of believers. I think God is allowing this to happen to bring churches closer together so we can fight a spiritual battle. The arsonist, he’s not my enemy. I forgave him the moment I pulled up to the burning church. I believe he is spiritually sick, and that’s the way we have to address this — by setting our differences aside and praying together.”
On Sunday, Ebenezer Lutheran Church became the sixth church found on fire. Though the church is in a predominantly African American neighborhood, parishioners call it racially integrated.
From 2007 to 2011, some 1,780 churches, funeral homes and other religious institutions per year battled blazes, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit group that researches fire prevention and safety. Roughly 180 per year were deemed intentional fires, according to an analysis over the summer by The Post.
“Three major arsons per week at religious institutions still sounds like a huge number, and it is,” The Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote. “But in part, that’s simply a function of the number of religious congregations in the U.S. — roughly 350,000 of them, according to an estimate by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, the research arm of the Hartford Seminary.”
The NFPA’s numbers don’t classify historically black churches separately, nor do they speak to whether intentional fires are hate crimes or not.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that condemned the summer’s church fires across the South, spoke out Monday about the recent St. Louis cases.
“While no racial motive has yet been established, the fear and intimidation in the African American community is substantial and must be validated,” the league said in a statement, according to the Religion News Service.
Authorities have not yet identified any suspects, but Mosby told the Associated Press this week that the possibility that it’s a hate crime — for religious or racial reasons — “is part of the dynamic” of the investigation.
The St. Louis Regional Crime Stoppers along with the ATF have announced a $2,000 award for information leading to the culprit’s arrest.
The Rev. Rodrick Burton of New Northside said he has visited each church that was affected, though he said that he’s disappointed that churches throughout the community have not come together.
“People should be standing up and saying, ‘Hey I’m with you,’ ” he told The Post. “I’ve been surprised at the apathetic response. To me, it’s very telling, very disappointing.
“We haven’t learned from Ferguson — about rallying around and supporting each other when there’s a crisis. Fires are being lit at churches. It doesn’t take much to say, ‘We’re with you.’ ”
Triggs agrees the church community needs to unite.
“I don’t want people to become angry, hostile or lose our faith over this,” he said. “Let’s pray together. Let’s stand together. Let’s fight this battle together.”
This story has been updated.