OPINION: Stop focusing on the Notre Dame — black churches matter, too

A black outline of a church on fire on a red background
Graphic by Ugen Yonten

Everyone has, no doubt, heard of the fire that broke out in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris earlier this month.

The cathedral represented French culture, architectural achievement and religion, and, as such, the event was considered to be a worldwide tragedy. U.S. media outlets have followed the event in its entirety, from speculating as to how the fire started to interviewing those with feelings of loss.

Notre Dame wasn’t the only church that was destroyed recently, though. Three historically black churches in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana — St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church — were razed to the ground in an act of racist hate.

The first act of arson occurred March 26, with later church burnings occurring shortly after in the city of Opelousas, finally ending April 4. Like the Notre Dame Cathedral, there were no major casualties that resulted from their destruction.

This attack against black churches, in itself, isn’t particularly surprising; after all, it’s not the first time something like this has happened. But at the moment, it feels like U.S. citizens care more about the incidental destruction of the Notre Dame than a purposeful, arsonous hate crime in their own country.

Most consider the Notre Dame to symbolize French culture and Catholicism, which are not inherently undiverse. However, it should at the same time be recognized as a symbol of white culture and white institutions.

As a black person, I can’t even really say I’m angry about this development. I’m too used to people treating black culture and lives like they don’t matter. What does make me angry is the fact that only now, after the destruction of the Notre Dame, are people donating to these churches.

I’m not saying that Catholicism, in its entirety, is a white institution. Plenty of people of color are Catholic, and I’m sure these same people also felt the religious loss that came with the destruction of the Notre Dame.

But allow me to distinguish between cultural loss and religious loss. Many of those denouncing the tragedy of the Notre Dame fire did so on religious grounds. Despite that, those same people make no mention of the intentional burning of the three historically black churches in the U.S.

With regards to cultural loss, it is important, too, to consider the extent to which the response is informed by white-centric historical narratives. The history we are taught is predicated on white achievement and conquest.

So it’s worth asking ourselves whether the same attention would be given to a non-white landmark, like the Al-Haram Mosque in Saudi Arabia or the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Indonesia. (It goes without saying that President Donald Trump would likely never promise to provide financial aid to the former, as he did with Notre Dame.)

While some of the Notre Dame’s relevance stems from its architectural value, there is no denying that we’re conditioned to think of European feats as more significant than those of other cultures.

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As a black person, I can’t even really say I’m angry about this development. I’m too used to people treating black culture and lives like they don’t matter. What does make me angry is the fact that only now, after the destruction of the Notre Dame, are people donating to these churches.

Until the Notre Dame fire had stopped April 16, these churches had received a little under $100,000. After the destruction of the Notre Dame, the Louisiana churches experienced a massive rise in donations.

It took them a little over a week, but as of last Friday, the Louisiana churches had raised $1.9 million total. Meanwhile, it only took the Notre Dame two days to raise $1 billion, according to People.

It was only after the destruction of a symbol of white culture that citizens were able to sympathize with a similar loss within their own country. Some might argue that media attention played a role, but the same argument holds. Why should the Notre Dame’s burning be the sole reason for increased media attention for the Louisiana churches?

What’s more, people are actually citing what happened to the Notre Dame as an inspiration to fuel their donations.

Yeah. Their main motivation for donating isn’t the fact that hate crimes have been continuing in this country for as long as we can remember; it’s that a historically white church recently burned down. These oh-so-benevolent donors didn’t see black loss as a cause worth donating to unless they could equate it with white loss.

If the Notre Dame hadn’t been set ablaze, these Louisiana churches would not have received those donations with that speed, let alone that amount.

Maybe if people in France stopped having drinkable water, we could get enough donations to help the situation in Flint, Michigan, too.

Brooke Sparks PO ’22 is TSL’s TV columnist. She’d usually be writing about some show she hated on Netflix. But she hates racism even more, so she wrote this.

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