ST. LOUIS – Someone has been setting fire to predominantly black churches in the St. Louis area, and investigators are trying to determine if the arsonist is targeting either religion or race.
Investigators have no suspects or motives. But the possibility of a hate crime — for religious or racial reasons — "is part of the dynamic" of the investigation, St. Louis Fire Capt. Garon Mosby said.
The blazes have happened in an area still reeling from the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last year by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and a grand jury's subsequent decision not to charge Wilson. Brown, who was black, was unarmed when he was shot by Wilson, who is white.
But church leaders said Monday that they are focused on healing, not speculating about blame.
"This is a spiritually sick person," said the Rev. David Triggs, whose New Life Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis was set on fire on Saturday. "This is a sin issue. It's not a race issue."
The fires began Oct. 8 and have all happened within a few miles of each other in north St. Louis city and county. Six churches have been damaged; five of the churches are predominantly black and one is racially mixed. In each case, the front doors were set on fire. Damage has ranged from virtually nothing at one church to the near destruction of another.
John Ham, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the agency is investigating, along with St. Louis city and county arson squads. The ATF has jurisdiction over fires at all houses of worship, Ham said.
The first of the fires was at Bethel Nondenominational Church in Jennings, a small town in north St. Louis County that shares a border with Ferguson.
New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, also in Jennings, was hit two days later, followed by four churches in St. Louis: St. Augustine Catholic Church on Wednesday, New Testament Church of Christ on Thursday, New Life Missionary Baptist Church at 4 a.m. Saturday, and a fire at Ebenezer Lutheran Church that was discovered Sunday morning.
A day after the New Life fire, about 40 congregants gathered for an outdoor service. The fire melted vinyl siding on the exterior and caused some damage to a small entry area, but the sanctuary itself had only smoke damage. Triggs said the church had no insurance.
Michele Brown, business manager at St. Augustine, said fire damage to the stately brick church was limited to the two front doors.
"We are upset and we're concerned that there's an individual who, for whatever reason, is sick," Brown said. "We prayed for them Sunday. There's something wrong with someone who would do something like that."
The Rev. Rodrick Burton of New Northside sensed an "apathetic" response to the fires locally, though a few neighboring churches have offered to lend a hand. He said no one knows if the fires were racially motivated, but that it's clear they're an attack on religious freedom.
"Whether you practice faith or you don't, everyone should be very concerned about that," Burton said. "Religious freedom is part of our identity as Americans."