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Arson Blamed For 7 St. Louis Church Fires

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Someone is setting fires to churches in St. Louis. The seventh fire in a span of two weeks happened yesterday at an historic Catholic church, the Shrine of St. Joseph, near downtown. That church has a mostly white congregation in a mixed neighborhood. The other six fires were set at predominantly black churches. One is the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church. We reached its pastor, Rev. Roderick Burton.

Thank you for joining us.

RODERICK BURTON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with what happened to your church building. I understand that the fire was set at the exterior door, which seems to be a pattern at many of these churches we're talking about.

BURTON: Yes. Thankfully, a neighbor saw the fire, called the fire department and went so far as to tell the fire department that our minister of music lived two doors down. So the fire department woke him up. If someone had not observed it, the damage could have been far worse. But we were able to use the front doors despite the fire damage.

MONTAGNE: The St. Louis police and fire departments released a joint statement along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, saying, we believe that this fire-setting activity is meant to send a message. Now, it did not specify what message that might be. How do you read this?

BURTON: Well, I think it's very responsible not to categorize it in any one particular way right now because I have not received any evidence of any sort of racial motivation, no emails, no social media messages. My personal belief, from history, that if it were intentionality on behalf of those who are, you know, racially motivated, they would have done a greater job. These fires are, I guess for a lack of a better term, it's kind of amateur hour. And I'm thankful for that.

MONTAGNE: So you think that it may be vandals of some sort or...

BURTON: I think it's mental health issue or someone, perhaps, maybe had been hurt by a church. It could be a religion issue. Or it could be just someone knowing the history of black churches being burned and wanting to get attention. I mean, you know, that history is still there.

MONTAGNE: Well, the fact that there are these fires at all reminds some of a string of arsons at black churches that followed the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

BURTON: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Has that thought come to you?

BURTON: Sure, sure. And I have - you know, I have a lot of members in my church who are civil rights era, you know, of that generation. They lived through it. They lived through it down South. My mother lived through that type of era. And so people are waiting with bated breath to find out what is the motivation.

MONTAGNE: Well, you said that you were able to even open the doors after this fire and get in and hold services at your church, a large prayer meeting on Wednesday. Who all came?

BURTON: Well, I mean, it was very heartening after a week of, you know, being the town crier that there's a problem here. I was very heartened to see such a response on that day by not just the African-American community, but the diversity of St. Louis. Now, that being said, I think more people should be concerned about this whether they are people of faith or not because what is being challenged, what is being touched is our freedom of religion. And I think that should be something that every American should be concerned about and would have solidarity when we see that being attacked.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

BURTON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Roderick Burton is the pastor at the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.