Decked out in vibrant pink and yellow dresses and suits and elaborate hats, the all-black congregation of the Greater Union Baptist Church packed into a plain, windowless room in a private Masonic lodge with plastic folding chairs Sunday morning to hold their Easter service.
They’ve been gathering in this cramped donated space since April 2, when their historic church was burned to the ground in a series of alleged suspected hate crimes that destroyed three black churches over nine days.
Spirits were high, despite the circumstances. The gospel choir sang, and the churchgoers danced and hollered and praised exuberantly, as if nothing were different. Occasionally, bits of grief broke through: A woman burst into tears and started sobbing into her lap, and people passed a box of tissues down the row and rubbed her back until she recovered. Otherwise, the mood felt something like triumph.
Reverend Harry Richard addressed the fire many times in his sermon. He praised the congregation for handling the tragedy so gracefully amid all the media attention, and for resisting angry reactions. He urged continued empathy and prayers for the suspect in police custody, a 21-year-old white man named Holden Matthews, and his family.
“Holden and his parents, I think about what they must have been going through,” he said. “I would hate for that to have been my son. How would I feel? I put myself in his place. How would I feel if it was my son? Can you imagine that mother and that father waking up that morning and realizing it was their son that did this? Can you feel the heartbreak?”
“Don’t ever give up on love,” he continued. “I don’t care what the world might do to you. You never give up on love.”
The loss of this church, more than 100 years old, felt like the death of a close family member to many of the people who grew up in it. Monica Guidry Harris, 56, said her mother and father renewed their vows inside those walls every single year for 73 years in a row until they both passed away in the fall, two months apart. They’re buried together in a grave behind the now-burned church. The night of the blaze, Harris received a frantic call from one of her 12 siblings at 2:30 in the morning, and she jumped out of bed to drive to the scene.
“The only thing I could see in my mind was my dad with a waterhose, trying to put the fire out,” she said. “He only had a second grade education. He lived, breathed, everything this church. He used to cut the grass here.”
Several of the Guidry siblings wore matching pins Sunday morning with a picture of their parents on it. “I’m glad Mama and Daddy weren’t here to see the church burn,” said Celina Guidry Richard, 69.
The congregation is hesitant to talk about race or racism with regard to the fire, despite the long, painful history of white supremacists burning black churches in the Deep South. St. Landry Parish, the heart of Cajun country in Louisiana, is 41 percent black and 56 percent white. I grew up here, about five miles from Greater Union. The parish is still fairly segregated — there are black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, black schools and white schools — but the races have interacted peacefully here for decades. Any tension or strife, like most things in the bayou, swims stealthily beneath the surface.
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SOURCE: The Daily Beast, Laura Bassett