The remains of precious religious objects lay charred on the church floor, black and smoldering after a devastating fire.
But this wasn’t Notre Dame, the Catholic cathedral known as the “Heart of Paris,” parts of which collapsed in flames this week as millions watched in horror on broadcast news. This was three small Baptist churches in rural Louisiana.
While these churches in a stubbornly segregated part of America’s South were destroyed by suspected arson over several days, they received scant attention on the news landscape. (The 21-year-old son of a local sheriff’s deputy has been charged with arson and hate crimes.)
“I think it’s a question that we all have to ask ourselves: Why is it that we can be more moved by the destruction of a beautiful but inanimate object rather than, say, the death of refugees in the Mediterranean or elsewhere? Or the continuing and growing problems of climate change, and the deaths of animal species?” asked Nick Jubber, a travel writer in London who lived in Paris.
The Twittersphere agreed. After an overnight of collective grief and social mourning over the 850-year-old Paris cathedral, people started to talk about priorities.
“My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame,” tweeted Megan Romer of Lafayette, Louisiana, just south of the parish where the Baptist churches burned. “If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.
“I am not saying this to minimize any suffering. Loss is loss and it all hurts,” Romer continued. “But if you happen to be reading this, remember that famous history isn’t the only history. Imagine the courage it took to build and fill a black house of worship in postbellum rural Louisiana. AND NOW.”
While Notre Dame receives about 30,000 visitors a day as one of the biggest attractions in the world, the predominantly black Louisiana churches receive little tourism attention or dollars. Instead, tourists in that part of Lousiana come to admire the plantations constructed before the Civil War by wealthy white landowners who built their sizable fortunes on generations of enslaved black people.
Besides the Louisiana churches, people worldwide noted the outflow of money going to Notre Dame, while, in their eyes, other parts of the world were burning.
Three French “billionaires have pledged 600+ million euros for the Notre Dame reconstruction in less than 12 hours,” tweeted Iman. “Let that put into perspective how easily billionaires could end world hunger, poverty, lack of access to healthcare/clean water/education but choose not to.”
“The 800-year-old Keriya Aitika mosque in China’s Xinjiang province was also razed to the ground by the Chinese (government), the latest in a string of historic mosques destroyed,” tweeted Kaveh Akbar. “Pray for these histories, too.”
“Masjid Al-Aqsa got burned and there’s not media coverage??! But Notre Dame fire is on every news channel??? Ok,” lamented @Salmaabellaa, referring to a fire at Islam’s Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
When others with significant social media followings tweeted about the inequity, the Baptist churches were no longer anonymous. A GoFundMe account asking for donations to restore the churches raised close to $1.5 million by Wednesday afternoon EST.
Nearly 27,000 donations were made worldwide to the Seventh District Baptist Association, a 149-year-old nonprofit religious organization comprised of 60 Baptist churches in southwest Louisiana, which includes the three churches affected by the recent fires, the GoFundMe webpage states.
“As we hold Paris in our thoughts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana. Three historically black churches have burned in recent weeks, charring buildings and scattering communities. If you can, contribute to rebuilding funds …” tweeted former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Jubber explained that the outpouring for the Catholic cathedral is because Notre Dame "is just as alive as any person and, perhaps, more so … because it's been there and present through so much history, it has this living force that gives it this emotional power. … It feels like more than just a building … its so permanent. I never would have imagined that Notre Dame would have burned. It seemed like something that was always there. It was always something so stable.
"It will never be the same," said Jubber, who recently published "Epic Continent: Adventures in the Great Stories of Europe."
"There may seem something perverse about this display of grief when species are falling extinct on a regular basis, and we're increasingly faced with the effects of climate change. But it reflects a truth that is increasingly apparent: We look to the past for our collective identity."