People of faith come together to lift up churches hit by arson

Oct 21, 2015

Updated 9 a.m., Oct. 22 -  Overnight, officials confirmed a seventh church fire at the rectory for the Shrine of St. Joseph in the Columbus Square neighborhood, just west of downtown. The St. Louis Fire Department was able to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher. The double wooden doors to the rectory suffered some damage. No one was injured.

Our original story.

Nearly 200 people gathered to offer prayer and support Wednesday to the pastors and congregants of six churches hit by arson in 10 days.

The fires between Oct. 8 and Oct. 18 did not injure anyone, and caused mostly minor damage. But they left religious communities shaken, coming in the wake of a series a major blazes at historically black churches in Charleston, S.C., over the summer.

All six churches are in predominately African-American areas of north St. Louis and north St. Louis County, and many of the churchgoers are also black.

"Fires in churches awaken some of the saddest memories of our country's history, and anyone who knows the troubled part of American history must regard this as nothing less than the most serious thing we are facing right now," said St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson. "When someone attacks a place of worship in our community, they attack the very core of who we are."

But not a single one of the speakers who lifted their voices was letting the attacks get them down.

"I'm not coming up here with my head down," said the Rev. David Triggs, whose New Life Missionary Baptist Church in the city's Walnut Park neighborhood was the most severely damaged. "Look at the beautiful diversity that is in this room. We are sending a message to every demonic influence, to every minion, that you can break down the building, but we will not lose our voice!"  

New Life Missionary Baptist Church was the most severely damaged of the six churches.
Credit Peter Armstrong | Christ Church Cathedral

Rev. Rodrick Burton hosted the prayer circle at his New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, which had its 67-year-old doors damaged by a fire. He had been "stunned," as he put it, by the lack of response from the faith community when the news of the fires first broke. 

"I'm full right now," Burton said as he surveyed his sanctuary. "I wasn't sure. But God was sure."

An interfaith fundraising team that sprang up to help the churches burned in Charleston will also help raise money for the six churches in the St. Louis area.

Changes to response protocol

The rash of arsons has led both St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson to change their operating procedures.

The fire department will deploy extra manpower to every report of a fire at a church building in the general area of the crimes, Jenkerson said, along with someone from the fire investigations unit. The department has also launched a toll-free tip line, and contributed $5,000 to a reward fund. That brings the total reward offered to $9,000.

Dotson said his department is boosting its visibility around churches that might be targets to prevent any further blazes.

"In the overnight hours, we’re visiting churches, we’re getting out on foot, we’re sending out K-9s in the area of churches, certainly heightening the public’s awareness, looking in the areas for video cameras, for any information that can help us," he said.

Dotson said it is frustrating that the investigation has yet to lead to a suspect. But he said the collaboration between the St. Louis Regional Bomb Unit and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will produce results.

"Whoever this is has picked a fight that they can't win," Dotson said.

"You can burn a building down, but you'll never burn the church down," said Police Chief Jon Belmar of St. Louis County. "We will not rest, and this will not stand."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann