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Local, federal investigators probe 6 arsons at black churches in 10 days

The St. Louis Regional Bomb Unit and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating what they describe as a series of six arsons at predominately black churches in north St. Louis and north St. Louis County.

The latest, Ebenezer Lutheran Church at 1011 Theobald St., in the Baden neighborhood of St. Louis, was damaged sometime between 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 a.m Sunday. The buildings have all been empty at the times of the fires, which began when the arsonist lit exterior doors on fire.

"You hate to see some type of pattern," said Rev. Rodrick Burton, the pastor at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, on the city/county border. His was the third church hit. "I just came from one of the churches, and they're going to have to do major repairs. It's scary, because after what happened in Charleston, there were six churches burned to the ground. I certainly don't want to hear about anyone's churches being completely leveled."

Karen Aroesty, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that the organization had "grave concern" about the pattern unfolding. Though no racial motivation has been established, the statement said, the fears in the African-American community are substantial and valid.

“We are thankful that, to date, no clergy or congregant has been injured," Aroesty said. "Should investigation result in a finding that racism and/or any bias played a role in these arsons, we anticipate that forceful prosecution will follow under the Church Arson Prevention Act and any relevant state statutes."  

The damage at Burton's church was confined to the doors, but repairs won't be cheap. They were built in 1948, and replacements will have to be custom-built. Burton said he's gotten estimates around $5,000, but that doesn't include the cost of installing a security system.  

An arson fire damaged the front door of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings on October 10. It was one of six fires set at predominately black churches in the space of ten days.
Credit Peter Armstrong | Christ Church Cathedral
An arson fire damaged the front door of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in Jennings on October 10. It was one of six fires set at predominately black churches in the space of ten days.

A fire also damaged the doors at St. Augustine Catholic Church, 1371 Hamilton Ave., in the city's Hamilton Heights neighborhood. As at New Northside, any replacement doors will have to be custom-built.

The church's secretary, Michele Brown, said she and fellow parishioners are praying for the arsonist.

"It is intentional, but you would hope that the reason is that they are sick," she said. "I don't think it's just believing that they are sick. We just know that no one in their right mind would do something like this."

Burton said he was stunned by the lack of outcry in the faith community, especially because leaders had seemed unified in the aftermath of Ferguson.

"I don’t know whether it’s fatigue from all of the stresses of what happened, but to me it would take very little courage to call an African-American church and say, 'Hey, our congregation is praying for you, we’re praying with you'," he said.

The Very Rev. Mike Kinman, the dean at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis, said he is working to make contact with the pastors of the affected churches to find out what they need. He is asking people to gather at noon Wednesday at Rev. Burton's church, 8645 Goodfellow Blvd., in Jennings, for the congregation's regular prayer meeting.

CrimeStoppers and the ATF are offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the arsonist. In a joint statement, the ATF, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Louis Fire Department said they believe the fire-setting activity is "meant to send a message," and "may be the result of stress experienced in the subject's life, which may be noticeable to those around him or her."

"It is only a matter of time before someone is injured or harmed as a result of this fire-setting activity," the statement said. "We ask that our community continue to maintain vigilance and take note of their environment and assist us with identifying this offender.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.