Federal authorities have joined the investigation into a string of fires that engulfed three historically black churches in southern Louisiana in the span of just 10 days.
The fires began on March 26 in Louisiana's St. Landry Parish, a rural community north of Lafayette. Officials have not determined the cause of the fires, but have said they are unable to rule out the possibility of arson or that the three incidents were all related.
"There is clearly something happening in this community," State Fire Marshal H. Browning said in a statement on Thursday. "That is why it is imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is."
The fires caused extensive damage to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and the Greater Union Baptist Church in the city of Opelousas, and the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre. No deaths or injuries have been reported in either of the fires.
Separately, officials say a fourth fire was "intentionally set" on March 31 at the Vivian United Pentecostal Church, a predominately white church roughly three hours north in Caddo Parish.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is now investigating the fires, as is the FBI. So far officials have not connected the four fires, identified a suspect or determined a motive.
The narrow window in which the fires took place has raised fears that racist motivation may be at play. The fires have also rekindled painful memories of the violence that frequently targeted black churches in the South during reconstruction and the civil rights era. That violence has continued in recent years with incidents such as the 2015 shooting at the Emmanuel AME Baptist Church in Charleston, S.C., when a white supremacist fatally shot nine people.
For congregants like Florence Milburn, a member of the Greater Union Baptist Church, the fires have been devastating.
Milburn said she learned on Thursday about the fire at Greater Union.
"When I was notified at 2:30 in the morning, I was on my feet, and I was there," Milburn told NPR. "My husband and I drove over there along with our other family members, and along with our church family, we were on site and we watched our church burn to the ground."
The congregation of the Greater Union Baptist Church was preparing to celebrate the 130th anniversary of its construction this July. "This is my family church. My family has been in this church for over 100 years, going back to my great grandparents, so when I heard of the fire, I was devastated. And I am still uneasy. I am still hurt," Milburn said.
Like others in the community, Milburn said there was "something irregular, out of the ordinary" about the fires. "Something that should not have occurred."
"Why they did it, what motive, we're at a loss. So whether or not we are told who did it, or why they did it, it doesn't bring our church back, and all the memories that we had," Milburn said. "It's like losing a family member, or losing a family home."
Milburn said that on Sunday morning, congregants will gather at a building loaned to them temporarily for worship. Plans for rebuilding have already begun, she said.
"We have to rebuild God's church."