As arson investigators worked to find out who has been setting Louisiana churches ablaze, the Rev. Dwight Brown slept in his church two nights last week, he said Wednesday.
“I was afraid my church was going to be targeted. My church is directly between two of the churches,” he said. “I wasn’t going to sit there and let it burn down. It’s 130 years of history. I couldn’t take that chance.”
Brown asked that CNN not divulge the name of his church, for fear that it could become a target, but it sits near two of the three churches that burned in recent weeks in St. Landry Parish, about an hour’s drive west of Baton Rouge.
Police say three black churches were intentionally torched over a 10-day span: St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26, Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on Thursday.
Officials are also investigating a fourth, smaller fire on March 31 at the predominantly white Vivian United Pentecostal Church in Caddo Parish, more than 200 miles north of St. Landry. The blaze was intentionally set, officials said.
Brown, a law enforcement officer, attended services at his church for more than three decades before becoming pastor there. His church was founded in 1889.
He knew it was dangerous to sleep in his church after three fires in the parish – and fire officials have cautioned against doing so – “but I could not sleep in my bed knowing the church I was a pastor of for 15 years could be burned down,” he said.
He’s heard of other pastors sleeping in cars outside their churches, he said.
Brown stopped sleeping in his church over the weekend, after taking precautions to safeguard it, including removing the church’s sign and installing cameras inside the church and at its entrance.
He also stops in every night and turns on a light, and members of his congregation have begun walking by the church during the day and giving each other updates, he said.
More questions than answers
It is still unclear who is responsible for the fires and will likely take investigators time to sift through what evidence remains to determine if the blazes are connected.
“We believe these three fires are suspicious,” State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said. “We are falling short of talking about what caused the fires, falling short of saying they are related, however cognizant that there is a problem and no coincidence that there are three fires.”
Residents and worshipers in St. Landry Parish, where all three fires occurred, are withholding judgment about what may have caused them, even as officials say they contained “suspicious elements” and the episodes evoke recollections of past acts of hate against black churches.
“I feel our district was being targeted because all three of the churches were in our district,” Pastor Freddie Jack, the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association president, said Monday.
The NAACP labeled the fires “domestic terrorism,” adding the “spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”
The city’s mayor, Julius Alsandor, called the church burnings “hideous.”
“The relevance and the impact on the people in the surrounding communities and especially the congregation of each of these churches, it’s hurtful and there may be some fear that is being exhibited by those who are a part of the three churches,” he said.
Hurt, fear and confusion – that’s all the congregants are left with for now.
“We don’t know why, we don’t know when, we don’t know who,” the Rev. Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church told CNN affiliate KATC. “We will let the authorities handle that, but we just know a higher power and a higher authority who can bring this thing to fruition.”
In an appeal for the public’s help, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he has directed the state fire marshal as well as local and federal authorities to “aggressively investigative” the fires.
“Churches are sacred places, and no one should fear for their safety in their house of worship,” he said. “And no one should be concerned that their house of worship would be destroyed.”
The FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the investigations. About 100 people are involved in the probe, including about 40 state and 40 federal employees, said state fire marshal spokeswoman Ashley Rodrigue.
CNN’s Josh Campbell contributed to this report.