When Churches Burn, Who Mourns? | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

When Churches Burn, Who Mourns?

Americans tend to idealize Paris. The style, the food, the culture. In popular Western imagination, it's a city that's urbane and historic, the gold standard. So when images of the roof and spires of Notre Dame in flames overwhelmed the media a couple weeks ago, it was understandable. An icon is in flames.

St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. These are three African-American churches in Louisiana which were recently destroyed and did not receive the same level of coverage. They were burned in a manner reminiscent of the white supremacist tactics used in the 1900s to the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement. And yet, here we are, still seeing this in the 21st century.

And no, I won’t compare the time it took to raise $1 billion vs. $1 million. But let us connect these four churches.

Many of the parishioners of those Black churches in Louisiana are likely descendants of the thousands of enslaved Africans brought there by the French. From their traditional religions of West Africa, they became Christian — through promises, coercion, and even compromise.  

Now consider that it was the labor of the enslaved Africans and their descendants which built much of the French wealth that helped to grow the church, colonies, resources, land and maintain it all.

We cry for Notre Dame and ignore the churches of the Seventh District Baptist Association of Churches in Louisiana. The church of the slave owner’s heirs is mourned; the churches of the survivors of slavery are not.

What does the media do? They do what they often do. The white-led media largely ignores tragedies in Black and Brown. The Black church burnings — plural because there have been many in recent years. These church fires are not brought to the attention of the larger public because we understand who and what is mourned, who and what is valued.

We did not get to see most of the Notre Dames of the First Nations of Americas and of Western Africa. Those structures, that art, those riches, the intellect, the innovation, the architecture, the design, the wealth was largely destroyed. Subdued, suppressed, and stolen to help create Notre Dame and other structures in Europe and the Americas.

Those three modest but beautiful churches in Louisiana: What would they have looked like if they were in the nations of their ancestors?  What would they have looked like if they were built in the traditions of those ancestors? If they had never been forced to come to what we now call the Americas at all?

While we know Notre Dame was built before the transatlantic slave trade, how would the wealth or history of France, or Europe, been altered without the vast wealth acquired from Africa and Africans? Would Notre Dame still be standing at all?  

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