Like many other people, those of us who grew up in segregated Louisiana during the 1950’s and 1960’s are troubled by the recent burning of three churches in St. Landry Parish. For some, we know that those churches have cradled the hopes and dreams of African Americans for generations. I spent my formative years in a rural, south Louisiana southern Baptist church perched along State Highway 182 and understand the vulnerability of rural life. The reality is that the small agricultural community I grew up in was poor but very close-knit. A great many of us were related. Those who weren’t related were treated like family. I can only imagine what such a tragedy would have done to our community.
Reverend Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church brought it all home with one phrase “. . . We don’t represent hate, we represent love.” I interpreted Reverend Toussaint’s words to mean that where there is love there is togetherness. He was actually saying we’re stronger together. Not just as a single congregation or community but as a nation. We realize who we are, and who those around us are when life takes us back decades.
The images of the charred bibles and the crumbling façade of each church should make us all wonder whether racial and religious harmony will ever come to the melting pot we call America. Nonetheless, these images take me back. Back to St. Mary Parish where, through the eyes of a child, I saw the same division I see today. A place where a child going to the movies was seated in a “colored section” separately from everyone else. A place where you could buy food from the local restaurant but you couldn’t enter the front door. If you were black you had to order at the back door of the building. A place where poverty was a condition of identity not economics. What made it all palatable was family and the church.
Yet, there are those who believe that America has healed its wounds. Events like these church burnings are not isolated incidents. A lack of understanding of where we are as a country is quite common. Few realize that religious freedom in America is still a struggle for many today. Few people understand that America was still segregated just under 50 years ago – that’s during their parents’ lifetime. To cope with the overt racism and segregation, Black America turned to the church.
When we turn to the church we celebrate the beginning, the end, the joys and pains of life. That tiny wood framed shotgun church at the intersection of Louisiana Highways 318 and 182 was instrumental in my development. Sunday school, bible study and sponsored trips to Pontchartrain Beach to celebrate the end of the school year was a way of life. All were deeply rooted in that church. It was the glue that held us together. My mother’s entire family grew up in that church. Although it still stands today, I have not attended that church for many years. The last time I entered its doors was the day we buried my mother. Since that day, there has been little reason for me to return to that church. My siblings and I have all moved away. What’s heartbreaking is that I have never been able to duplicate that Christian embrace anywhere else.
What remains from that period of my life is the fabric of who I am. That little church was the scene of my first exposure to the possibilities in life. It was there that I met the first Black man I knew with a college degree. I learned that the despair and vulnerability of that rural village didn’t have to be my future. It was also the place where I first understood excessive force by the police and that experience was not very different from what we see today.
I was a scrawny 10 year old kid when a local police officer shot and killed an unarmed black resident of our small segregated community. Where he took his last breath was not very far from the front door of that little church. At his funeral in that same church, an entire community celebrated his life. There was no march in protest, no suspensions or grand jury investigation. Most of all, there was no murder trial. Just a church that embraced the hearts and minds of a community.
It’s no wonder that I’m troubled by these fires. I owe so much to that little church. But after all these years, not enough has changed. In many ways our connection to religion has changed. America was founded on, among other things, religious freedom. Pastors and their congregations, like mine from many years ago, continue to dismiss the hatred that surrounds them. They continue to embrace everyone they encounter with love. They open their doors to all that will enter. Increasingly, what they get in return is an active shooter (remember that one) or an arsonist.