Five black churches have been set ablaze in the St. Louis area over the last 10 days, a string of suspicious incidents that authorities are investigating as arsons.
The latest fire occurred on Saturday morning at the New Life Missionary Baptist Church in north St. Louis. Pastor David Briggs said he received word of the blaze at 5am and rushed to the church to find firefighters and investigators from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on the scene.
"The building was charred from the door all the way across the left side and up to the roof," Briggs said. "The fire had been put out by the time I had gotten there, but the damage was pretty extensive."
The pastor suggested the fire was "the work of a spiritually sick individual," and said he felt "extreme disappointment" when he saw the flames.
St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson told NBC News that no one has been harmed in the church fires, which have only caused minimal damage so far. In each case, the front doors of the churches were set ablaze. All of the churches are located in predominantly black areas of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Briggs said his church plans to hold an outdoor prayer service on Sunday due to their inability to access the sanctuary.
"I haven't really had an opportunity to assess how we're going to address the damage yet, we're really just trying to make it through today an hour at a time," he said. "Although the sanctuary wasn't burned, we can't use it — the chemical and smoke scent inside the church is just so strong that it's unbearable."
Early last Saturday morning, the front doors of the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis caught fire. The church's pastor, Roderick Burton, said he suspects that the events are connected, but he isn't certain that the attacks are racially motivated.
"Some people surmise this was racial, but typically before something like this happens we get an email or call — we had no idea this was going to happen," Burton said.
In the aftermath of the blaze, Burton noted that he hasn't heard from any of the neighboring places of worship, or from the mayor's office.
"One thing I am disappointed about is I haven't heard anything from the rest of the faith community in terms of solidarity," Burton said. "St. Louis is a racially divided city. If I was a white pastor, I would be more intentional about reaching out to a black church and being like, 'Hey, we're with you, we're not for this,' I haven't heard anything."
"After all we went through regarding Ferguson, to me, any type of violence, it should be addressed from the top," he added.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department released a statement that said the incidents "are classified as arsons and will be jointly investigated by the St. Louis Regional Bomb Unit and ATF."
Police said the first fire occurred on October 8 at the Bethel Non-Denominational Church in Jennings, a suburb in north St. Louis County. The police asked for the public's help identifying a suspect, asking for people to come forward if they "have observed anyone who has recently expressed anger or frustration with our religious community or with these particular churches."
"We believe that this fire-setting activity is meant to send a message," the police statement said. "We believe that this activity may be the result of stress experienced in the subject's life, which may be noticeable to those around him or her."
Earlier this summer, a string fires at black churches across the South led to an investigation by the FBI and ATF. Churches in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina burned in June under suspicious circumstances.
The incidents occurred amid calls to remove the Confederate flag from government grounds in the weeks after the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The timing led Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, to suggest that arsonists were targeting black churches to destroy symbols of black independence.
"In American history, to almost every significant social advance, there has been a backlash — often accompanied by a hell of a lot of violence," Potok said.
St. Louis police said investigations into the recent fires are ongoing.
"It is only a matter of time before someone is injured or harmed as a result of this fire-setting activity," the police statement said.
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