Up Next

Get Lifted

Thousands donate to help rebuild Mississippi church after arson destroys it

Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church has received over $200,000 in donations

On Nov. 1, members of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church were devastated to learn that their place of worship, a church that had been a beacon of hope for 111 years in rural Greenville, Mississippi, had been set ablaze and vandalized with the words “Vote Trump” spray-painted in white on the side of its beige brick exterior.

Just when church members thought all hope was lost, the generosity of thousands of people across America proved otherwise. A GoFundMe crowdfunding page created shortly after the tragedy has now raised $240,000, surpassing its $10,000 goal, and the amount continues to climb.

“When I ginned up this page before my first meeting at work today, I had no earthly clue it would get so big,” read a message left by J. Blair Reeves Jr., the page’s creator. “Thank you all so much. Responses have been pouring in from all over the world, and they’re truly extraordinary — Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists and many more, from all over the United States and many other countries.”

So far, there is a person of interest in the case, but Greenville police have not yet found a suspect or a real motive for the crime. Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons said in a statement that the arson comes during “one of the most racially charged elections in the history of this country,” and that the church burning is being investigated as a hate crime because historically all church burnings have been investigated as hate crimes.

“It is a direct assault on the Hopewell congregation’s right to freely worship,” Simmons said in a statement. “Given that it is a black church, this act could be racially motivated. Given the words left on the side of the church, it could be politically motivated. At this time, I don’t know what the motivation is. That conclusion will be determined by this investigation. I do know we have a great team of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies investigating this crime to bring the culprit to justice. We will not rest until the culprit, be they male, female, black, white, Republican or Democrat, is found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

America’s history with church burnings is long and painful. Though church burnings date to the 1800s, they were most common during the 1960s and used as fear and intimidation tactics by white supremacists in order to shake black communities. One of the most horrific tragedies came in September 1963, when members of the Ku Klux Klan threw a bomb into Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls as they attended Sunday school.

The burning of black churches persisted in the decades to follow. In 1996, 32 black churches had been torched within an 18-month span, prompting federal investigators to establish the National Church Arson Task Force, which dedicated its time searching for causes of church attacks until the task force was disbanded in 2000.

In June 2015, just days after a white supremacist allegedly took the lives of nine black church members who gathered for Bible study at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, five predominantly black churches sustained damaged after catching fire in five Southern states. Three of them were investigated as arson.

Though the arson of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church is being investigated as a hate crime, some residents are hesitant to label it as such.

“I think it was a cowardly act, but at this point I don’t think it was a hate crime,” Greenville native Deborah Jackson told USA Today. “I feel like if it was going to be done as a hate crime, it would have been done in a different area. It’s not out in the open. This is in a secluded area. You would not know that church is over there unless you turned and went around there.”

“Most people here don’t look at race as much as most people think we do,” Greenville resident Miles Cobb said in the same report. “To me, Greenville is not that. It’s not a race thing. I think it was just vandals being vandals. … We have strengthened the bonds of both black and white. Too many people have come together as a whole.”

While the investigation continues, church members are left to pick up the pieces and attempt to rebuild their safe haven.

“Our church was a historic church that has been there for over 111 years,” Hopewell’s pastor Carolyn Hudson said during a news conference. “This has left our hearts broken, but we are strong together. … Y’all continue to pray for us.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.