String Of Church Fires In St. Louis Raise Concern

Oct 22, 2015
Originally published on October 22, 2015 8:33 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Seven churches in the St. Louis area have been damaged by fire this month. The latest was overnight. A small fire was set on grounds of Roman Catholic Church in downtown St. Louis. St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann begins her report at one of the churches hit earlier.

RACHEL LIPPMAN, BYLINE: Melted siding, charred bricks and a pile of debris in the front yard greet the Reverend David Triggs these days when he pulls up to the New Life Missionary Baptist Church. The 92-year-old building was badly damaged by the fire and will have to be torn down. Despite the difficulties he faces, Triggs was upbeat when he addressed a crowd of 200 at a Wednesday prayer rally. Defeatism isn't his style.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REVEREND DAVID TRIGGS: You know, I'm not coming up here with my head down. Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: Amen.

TRIGGS: I want somebody to look to their neighbor and just say, thank you, Jesus.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: Thank you, Jesus.

TRIGGS: And look at the beautiful diversity that is in this room. Amen.

LIPPMAN: As Triggs surveys the damage at his church right next to Interstate 70, Ray Hill from the San Francisco Temple Christian Assembly stops by.

RAY HILL: I've seen you guys praying at the door, and I'm going to talk to my pastor and see can we do a little fundraising for you.

TRIGGS: Oh, man. That would be amazing. God bless you.

LIPPMAN: Triggs says that kind of solidarity will be necessary to help all of the affected congregations heal. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives is assisting the St. Louis Regional Bomb and Arson Unit in the investigation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Missouri State Highway Patrol have pledged assistance as needed. A reward is up to $9,000. St. Louis County Police chief Jon Belmar says the perpetrators will be caught.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIEF JON BELMAR: As we move forward, I will just give you my pledge. I know chief Dotson has covered it very well, but we will not rest, and this will not stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIEF SAM DOTSON: And the fact is that when someone attacks a place of worship in our community, they attack the very core of who we are and the very core of our civil being.

LIPPMAN: St. Louis Metropolitan Police chief Sam Dotson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOTSON: Whoever this person is, they've picked a fight that they can't win.

(CHEERING)

DOTSON: Whatever they are trying to accomplish, they’re not succeeding.

(APPLAUSE)

LIPPMAN: The recent arsons, Dotson says, should be regarded as the most serious thing the region is facing. Six of the seven churches damaged have majority black congregations. Reverend David Triggs says his mind instantly went to the blazes this summer that destroyed several black churches in South Carolina. He says those tragedies made it clear the country needs to come together, so he reached out to Father Dale Wunderlich, director at the Shrine of St. Joseph. Wunderlich's church was the latest to be attacked. He says Triggs's gesture warmed his heart.

FATHER DALE WUNDERLICH: We have a brotherhood as ministers, as pastors, and oddly enough, this kind of an event just kind of galvanizes that sense of brotherhood.

LIPPMAN: Reverend Triggs insists he will find a way to stay upbeat.

TRIGGS: So when the world can't figure out how you can maintain sanity, when the world can't figure out how you can keep a smile through tragedy and ashes, it's that perfect peace that God gives you, and I just have to find pockets of peace throughout my day.

LIPPMAN: Police have increased patrols in the affected areas, and the fire department is canvassing neighborhoods, encouraging anyone with information to call the state's arson hotline. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Lippmann in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.