Around the turn of the 20th century, a man named George Clemons decided to pitch a tent and start a church. In 1902, people flocked to the outdoor revival services on Semple Avenue in north St. Louis and soon a new sanctuary was built on donated land. Back then, there was a steeple bell that rang to signal the start of Sunday school and tolled when a member passed on to Glory. The congregation, now known as New Northside, became the first black Baptist church planted to the west of Kingshighway Boulevard—breaking indelible lines of segregation once common across St. Louis—when it built a new home out of Goodfellow in Jennings.
That history was marred 12 days ago when New Northside became the second church targeted in a string of seven arson attacks in the past two weeks. The first was reported Oct. 8 at nearby Bethel Non-Denominational Church in Jennings, a tiny suburb that sits just west of the St. Louis City line and a few miles from Ferguson, Missouri.
The good news is that no one has been hurt in the blazes and the damage thus far has been limited, except in a few cases. In each incident, someone set fire to the front door—often in the wee hours of the morning—and disappeared before sunrise. Until Thursday, when a largely white Catholic parish downtown was targeted, all were historically black churches situated a stone’s throw of one another in poor and working-class neighborhoods.
“Churches are a place for worship. They’re a place of sanctuary,” St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said earlier this week. “Someone who would commit such a crime is atrocious.”
While some of the structures were century-old historic sites, like St. Joseph, others were converted storefronts like New Testament Church in Christ. Quietly, though, local public officials question if the perpetrator is motivated by racial or religious bias. Others wonder whether it is a hate crime at all or someone playing a dangerous prank. Investigators have said little about what might have spurred the attacks. However, according to a statement released by state and federal authorities, they believe whoever is behind the arsons is out to “send a message.”
Mike German, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who went undercover with white supremacist groups, told NBC News that black churches are often targeted “because they tend to be places where people congregate, so you can harm a number of people, but also that they tend to represent something in the community.”
Churches are regarded as “soft target,” because strangers can come and go without question and facilities usually have little security. Larger congregations tend to invest in surveillance systems and other pastors, including Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, have armed security details.
“For decades we’ve had this in our society. It’s something law enforcement has to pay attention to,” German said. “I believe law enforcement has to try to understand this problem a little better.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and St. Louis Regional CrimeStoppers offered a $2,000 reward. It is “only a matter of time before someone is injured or harmed,” the ATF said in a written statement.
“I appreciate the hard work of federal law enforcement officials who are helping local police bring the individual(s) responsible for these hateful acts to justice,” said Congressman William “Lacy” Clay. “The community that I represent is focused on healing, not hating. And we will overcome these mindless attacks with love and our enduring faith.”
“These cowardly acts of violence against places of worship are deeply troubling,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a separate statement.
In addition to recovery funding administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Church Arson Prevention Act made the destruction of a place of worship a federal crime. Passed in 1990 after a string of similar incidences, the federal law provides prosecution tools and aggressive criminal penalties. Defacing or destroying any religious facility carries a penalty of 10 to 20 years, with a maximum of 40 if someone suffers bodily harm as a result.
The fires are being chronicled on Twitter under the hashtag #STLChurchFire2015. Meanwhile, worshippers at New Life Missionary Baptist Church held “open-air” church services after their building was damaged last Saturday. Congregations across the city prayed for the arsonist, and reportedly declared their forgiveness for the vile acts.