ST. LOUIS (Christian Examiner) – This past Sunday morning, worshipers at Ebenezer Lutheran Church discovered their church had become the sixth in two weeks to be targeted by a St. Louis area arsonist who has been setting church doors alight.
Five of the six churches had a primarily African American population and the sixth, described as racially integrated, was located in an African American neighborhood.
Police and fire department officials say they do not know whether the arsonist is motivated by racial hatred or religious hatred, but that such consideration would be a factor in their investigation.
David Triggs, the pastor of New Life Missionary Baptist Church, the fifth church set on fire, told the Washington Post he believes the arsonist is sick and deserves prayer. "We don't know if there's any race barrier to this; but we know it is a sin issue and it has to be addressed as such — through prayer."
The churches have expressed solidarity in intending to pray for their community. "I think God is allowing this to happen to bring churches closer together so we can fight a spiritual battle," Triggs said.
The pastors whose churches have been affected have shown forgiveness and concern toward the arsonist.
"The arsonist, he's not my enemy," Triggs said. I forgave him the moment I pulled up to the burning church. I believe he is spiritually sick, and that's the way we have to address this — by setting our differences aside and praying together."
AN ATTACK ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
The fire department has confirmed that the fires were intentionally set by accelerant sprayed on the churches' front door and then ignited. In most cases, the destruction was limited, but New Life Missionary Baptist was extensively damaged.
"We believe that this fire-setting activity is meant to send a message," the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said in a statement, according to the Washington Post. "We believe this activity may be the result of stress experienced in the subject's life."
The stress might include the racial tension still simmering regarding the death of Michael Brown and the exoneration of Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, Mo.
Bethel Nondenominational Church in Jennings, adjacent to Ferguson, was burned on Oct. 8. New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings was burned on Oct. 10. The subsequent four churches have been in St. Louis: St. Augustine Catholic Church on the fourteenth, New Testament Church of Christ on the fifteenth, New Life Missionary Baptist Church on the seventeenth, and Ebenezer Lutheran Church on the eighteenth.
New Northside posted a statement on its Facebook page: "Satan is busy, but my God is greater! Someone tried to set our church on fire, but the only fire that's burning is the fire we're having on the inside!"
"We are upset and we're concerned that there's an individual who, for whatever reason, is sick," said Michele Brown, business manager at St. Augustine, according to Associated Press.
"We prayed for them Sunday," she added. "There's something wrong with someone who would do something like that."
Rodrick Burton, pastor of New Northside, said the fires are an attack on religious freedom. "Whether you practice faith or you don't, everyone should be very concerned about that," Burton said. "Religious freedom is part of our identity as Americans."
Triggs said he would take the attack as a reminder to be prayerful.
A $2,000 reward for information about the arsonist is being offered by ATF and the St. Louis Regional CrimeStoppers.