As the world watched Notre Dame in Paris burn on Monday, many wondered what would be left of the gothic masterpiece initially completed in 1345. A historic landmark of Paris, the church was undergoing renovations when a fire broke out destroying the spire as well as much of the wooden interiors. Immediately massive donations began pouring into a non-profit associated with supporting the cathedral which had fallen into disrepair in recent years. Upwards of $700 million had been tallied by midweek with three of the most wealthy families in France pledging hundreds of millions to support the restoration.
Two weeks before the fire at Notre Dame, St. Landry Parish in Louisiana struggled to make sense of the three devastating fires at predominantly black churches. Each church was utterly destroyed by what is now understood to be arson. Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old suspect and son of the local Deputy Sheriff, has been charged with hate crimes and simple arson of religious buildings. The Greater Union Baptist Church was over 120 years old and had been a staple of the community for generations.
On Tuesday social media reacted to the imbalance of coverage between the Notre Dame fire and the arson attacks on the Louisiana trio of churches. While Notre Dame is obviously much more well known than three small churches in Louisiana, the emotional response to Notre Dame was global compared with the short and localized response in the south. The horrific story rooted in white nationalism barely made a blip on national news. Maybe this is due to it being nothing new (black churches are attacked with some regularity after all), or perhaps it’s simply because the majority of Americans don’t care.
Some might say the Notre Dame fire was a blessing in disguise for the St. Landry parish. Since April 10th their fundraising campaign has already reached its $1.8 million goal, much of that being raised in the days since the Notre Dame fire. With such an outpouring of support for a small community one wonders if the churches had been synagogues, would the response have been the same? What about mosques or sacred indigenous sites?
When we reflect back upon the Standing Rock protests in the winter of 2016, people and donations flowed in as well. The Standing Rock tribe and their allies protested the Dakota Access pipeline which would threaten the region’s drinking water as well as disturb ancient burial grounds of the Sioux tribe. But when the Klickitat and Cascade tribes pleaded with the federal government in 2017 not to bulldoze The Place of Big Big Trees, a sacred ceremonial site and burial grounds, no one came to their aid. Again, this struggle, much like that of St. Landry parish, was primarily ignored by the general public. Their site was bulldozed, including an ancient stone altar and countless sacred trees, all for an interstate highway that could’ve been expanded on the other side of the freeway.
The significant difference between these indigenous sites and the Christian churches is that the latter have garnered enough public support to be rebuilt. Both Standing Rock and the Klickitat tribes ultimately lost their battles. After Obama put a hold on the Dakota Access Pipeline, Trump signed a Presidential memorandum to advance it.
When sacred spaces are destroyed by industry or government, the community can’t just rebuild ancient trees or the cleanliness of its water. No amount of fundraising can resettle disrupted burial grounds where a pipe now lays.
With the advent of social media, we can send money anywhere to back any cause we believe in or fund any community rebuilding itself… if we hear about it. The story of Notre Dame and St. Landry Parish is a lucky one. A small community attacked by a racist pyromaniac benefitted from a tragic fire in a church thousands of miles away. The stories, however, of the Standing Rock and Klickitat people are less lucky by design. Native voices have been silenced for hundreds of years. Their sacred spaces have been desecrated with impunity by settlers, government, and private business alike.
The destruction of Notre Dame tugged at the heartstrings of Christians all over the world, but no one seems to give a damn that Flint still doesn’t have clean water. The very thing that sustains and gave birth to each and every one of us is under constant attack. And yet, instead of donating our hard earned dollars to protecting and preserving the Earth and ourselves — we pledge support and money to a building we rarely interact with, one that is really just important to a small percentage of the world’s population.
While rebuilding places of worship is understandable, protecting and healing our planet should be a much bigger priority. Without it, the theory of God and places of worship wouldn’t have the opportunity to even exist.
Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.