Churches in St. Louis are burning. There have been seven fires in two weeks, most of them at predominantly black churches across the north side of the city. Thankfully, no one has been injured and the structural damage is relatively minor, but it is a reminder that while many white evangelicals talk about persecution, the historically black church has been dealing with persecution for centuries. These fires are just a taste of the persecution felt by churches throughout history and around the globe.
It is hard to know how to respond to arson. Helplessness and fear are normal reactions to this sort of event, but churches have reacted with grace and mercy. Pastor Burton at New Northside Missionary Baptist organized a prayer vigil for people across the city. One of the churches is attached to a school and the children put up a sign saying, “We forgive whoever did this.” In the face of darkness, these churches have responded with the light of Christ. It is an important reminder that times of trouble clarify our commitment to grace and the forgiveness of Christ, they don’t negate them.
The church provides a visual reminder to the wider world that even in the midst of oppression and fear there is still hope. Some people are so full of anger and hatred that they find that kind of hope threatening. This is a sign of the deep damage that the psychosis of racism has done to their souls. In our struggle for justice, for an end to the church fires and the shootings and the racist policies in our city we must never lose track of the fact that all people, even our enemies, even those who are setting these fires, are made in the image of God. The true Church lives in the heart of God’s people, where fire can never touch it, so the only real damage these arsonists are doing is to their own souls.
Just a month ago, at the site of yet another police shooting in St. Louis, we watched as clouds of tear gas billowed over a city street and police helicopters circled overhead. The police armored vehicle showed up with heavily armed officers. In the midst of the chaos and fear, as officers streamed through the street with assault rifles, with our hands in the air, a pastor next to us started praying the 23rd Psalm out loud and we joined in, reminding ourselves that even though we were literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We did not need to fear evil, because the Lord was with us.
As churches in St. Louis wait to see if their house of worship will be the next one to burn, we must remember that those who walk with the Lord do not need to fear evil, not because we are immune to it, but because we know that suffering is part of the Christian walk and the Lord will, ultimately, make all things right. In the meantime, we keep working, praying, worshipping, and walking. The Lord will fight our battles for us and he is greater than an angry person with a box of matches.
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the furnace King Nebuchadnezzar believed his fires had destroyed them, but he looked into the flames and saw, “four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they were not hurt.” With the Lord, what people meant for evil can be turned into good. We do not need to fear the flames, we can stand in the middle of the worst of them, because we walk with One who is greater than the flames.
If you would like to support the churches that have been affected by these fires, you can donate to this fund: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-for-st-louis-churches/x/11017760#/ The money will go to repairing the churches and providing security systems. If there is any extra money it will be used by the churches for programs in the community, proving to the arsonists that their fires only make the church stronger.