Their church was burning. They linked arms and prayed - FLASHGLITZBLOG

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Monday, April 15, 2019

Their church was burning. They linked arms and prayed

Ronald Milburn smelled the smoke four miles away as he drove to Greater Union Baptist Church.
Members of the congregation had started to gather outside. Some cried. As Rev. Harry Richard watched his small church burn, one member suggested they do the only thing they could: pray.
So they formed a semi-circle on the side of the road and locked arms.
"As I began to pray, I heard God say, 'pray for that individual or whomever did this,'" Richard said.
Smoke billowed. Flames glowed in the church, beyond its archway.
Members of the congregation of Greater Union Baptist Church stand for a portrait in front of the ruins of their former church.
Members of the congregation of Greater Union Baptist Church stand for a portrait in front of the ruins of their former church.
Milburn felt helpless. The 54-year-old had called the church home since he was a teenager.
"I'm trained to fight ... and get in the fight. I couldn't get in the fight because of the intense fire," the Army veteran said.
Sheryl Richard, 56, snapped photos of the church where she, her daughter and sister had all said their wedding vows. "Your heart breaks, watching what we call home going up in flames," she said.
Greater Union was among three historically black churches in rural St. Landry Parish, west of Baton Rouge, that police said were intentionally torched over a 10-day span.
St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, located about six miles southeast of Greater Union, burned first on March 26. Greater Union Baptist was set ablaze on April 2. Mount Pleasant Baptist Church burned on April 4.
The remains of Greater Union Baptist Church are seen on April 10.
The remains of Greater Union Baptist Church are seen on April 10.
Since then, members of Greater Union's congregation have grappled with their loss with sadness, anger and resolve. A great deal of history went up in flames: a bible used by pastors over the past 60 years, handwritten sermons, financial records and documents dating back to 1889. But the church, which turns 130 this year and was started by residents who farmed the land, has not lost hope. They're meeting for now at a Masonic lodge, and they plan to rebuild.
They have encouraged each other with daily scriptures, like the words from 1 Peter: "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
"When there's a death in the family, you want the love of your family, that's who you look for," said 69-year-old Celina Richard, whose parents and several other relatives are buried on the church grounds. (Though they share a surname, Celina, Sheryl and Harry Richard are not related.)
"Then you look for your friends. Then you look for the community."
Celina Richard has been a member of the church for 53 years.
Celina Richard has been a member of the church for 53 years.

Searching for answers

Celina Richard didn't want the image of the burning sanctuary emblazoned in her memory, so she stayed away that morning.
She thought of her parents who died 10 weeks apart last year. Her mother in August at 89 years old; her father in October at 92.
"I didn't want to feel what I thought they would feel," said Richard, a retired school teacher.
"I almost didn't want to see them see their church burn."
As the sanctuary smoldered, Rev. Harry Richard, 65, recalled feeling numb. He tried to imagine who would torch the church.
"Why the church, of all buildings?" he remembered asking himself.
He settled on something he would often tell the congregation: "Hurting people hurt people." He said he wished he could reach out to that person who had set fire to the church.

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