Following white supremacist Dylann Roof’s racially motivated murders of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, authorities are now investigating what could possibly be a series of arson-related hate crimes.
Six predominately Black churches have recently been damaged or destroyed entirely by fire, and there is reason to believe that at least three are arson. During this time period, there have been no attacks on churches with predominately white parishioners.
The first one targeted College Hills Seventh Day Adventist Church, located in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 22. Several spots on the property were burned, as well as the church’s van. According to authorities, it is unclear if the incident can be classified as a hate crime because no clue was left as to why these specific victims were targeted.
However, given the heinous nature of the fire, as well as the “race war” making national headlines, it still remains very possible that this was intended to be a hate crime. And churchgoers are understandably fearful, as well as devastated.
“When I look at this I see, I think of an intention to try to destroy this entire church. It makes it sad,” said Pastor Cleveland Hobdy III of the incident. “It’s sad either way that someone would put their mind to try to damage a church that’s trying to help people.”
The next fire occurred the following day in Macon, Georgia, at God’s Power Church of Christ. In this case, Sgt. Ben Gleaton, an arson investigator with the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department, confirmed to the Macon Telegraph that authorities “are investigating as if it was a set fire.”
Associate Pastor Jeanette Dudley described her initial shock at the sight, saying, “‘What’s the church doing on fire’ That was my response to it. I just couldn’t believe it and once I got here, I did, I cried. I cried for a little bit.”
And just one day later, on June 23, the Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, was engulfed in a fiery blaze that reportedly took over 75 firefighters to put out.
Similar to the Knoxville fire, it could be difficult to prove if this fire was in fact a hate crime but it definitely hasn’t been ruled out. Cynthia Robbins Shah-Khan, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte Fire Department, said, “Our investigators did not find any direct evidence that would lead them to believe at this time that this is a hate crime. Of course, that is a possibility.”
Co-pastor Rhonda Kinsey said she and the other church leaders are in “shock” and “disbelief.”
“You hear about it, but you never imagine you would have a fire at your church,” she said.
The total damages from these three fires alone adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some people have noted that the fires didn’t garner as much media attention as other arson incidents. One tweet compared it to the nationwide coverage of the CVS stores burned in Baltimore:
Media was all over a CVS that got burned down, but a handful of black churches get burned down and it’s complete silence on the matter. PantheR (@____PantheR) June 28, 2015
Meanwhile, despite the devastation, Pastor Minnex Kinsey of Briar Creek hopes that whatever attention is given to the incidents can help to educate people, and he simply wishes to “move forward.”
“We all have to consider what else do we need to do to actually be able to work together,” he said.