The world ceased as news outlets focused their attention on Paris where the Notre Dame Cathedral, a noted and celebrated world fixture, was ablaze. The blaze sent shockwaves around the world and social media outlets were covered with reflections on the cathedral’s beautiful architecture and symbolism. For many, this cathedral stood as a symbolic embodiment of strength.
As many focused their attention upon Paris, rendering their thoughts and prayers, I couldn’t help but notice the stark difference between this outcry and the lack of attention given to the three church burnings in Opelousas, La. While these churches, spaces of sacred worship, do not share the celebrity status of Notre Dame, they are spaces where black bodies worshipped weekly.
And while none of these churches contain a history dating back 850 years, they do have the relentless witness of formerly enslaved black Christians who erected houses of free worship and intentional communion. They served as testaments of courage, faith, fortitude, and worship.
Holden Matthews, the son of a deputy sheriff, was arrested for setting fire to the three churches and charged with a hate crimes. Their burnings are an intentional act of hate and an encore presentation of the past.
The stark contrast in media coverage and social concern reveals the deep and isolated silos which humanity can and chooses to abide within, magnifying the complex avenues of empathy and sympathy while examining the enactment of independent agencies to ensure certain spaces and structures are protected or resurrected.
Since Monday, millions around the world have pledged millions to the Notre Dame. And while donations to the three churches has exceeded a million dollars through crowdfunding, it still displays a noticeable difference of concern and intentionality of aide. You can care both about the burning of Notre Dame and the burning of the churches in Louisiana. But I wonder — why did it take Notre Dame’s tragedy to spark empathy for the hell experienced in Louisiana? Why did the Trump administration agree to donate funds for the rebuilding of Notre Dame while ignoring the need of relief amongst their own?
As the world navigates this moment of unintended damage vs. intentional terrorism, our minds must acknowledge that both spaces are sacred and holy. While the Notre Dame Cathedral has turned into a desired tourist attraction, the three Louisiana parish churches are places of continued communal gathering, formation, and worship. A place that matters to the few hundred compared to the millions.
Reverend Malcolm J. Byrd poignantly said:
Our cathedrals matter too. They were built by men and women who washed the clothes of others. They ironed suits they could never afford to have themselves. While on their knees scrubbing floors of marble, they prayed. Our cathedrals matter too. Burned time and time again by supremacists, yet rebuilt by the remortgaging of their own homes. Our cathedrals matter too. They fried fish and chicken, and baked sweet potato pies. Our cathedrals matter too. Our history matters too. Our labor matters too. Our cathedrals included safe rooms for the enslaved runaway and schools for their children. Our cathedrals matter too. Do they matter to you?
2019 signifies 400 years since the arrival of the first slaves to English speaking America. It also symbolizes the fortitude and survival of a people positioned to fail, yet continually prevail. While the likes of Dylan Roof and now Holden Matthews have tried to kill the witness of black people in America, the essence of our Spirit and strength of our God enables us to survive. Black people in America, of all faith traditions, have survived the violence of white supremacy through centuries of violence. Nevertheless, the witness of blackness prevails.
As we look toward Calvary, during this Holy Week, and prepare for Resurrection Sunday, the strength of the cross remains today. Its significance is revealed as it stands in the Notre Dame and upon the graves of Louisiana ancestors buried on the land of their sacred spaces. A stark contrast, yet consumed with much similarity; for its at the cross where we are one.