An arson fire at an African-American church in St. Paul is being investigated as a potential hate crime.
On early Sunday evening of April 28 fire was set to a storage building at New Hope Baptist Church, 712 Burr St. Fire investigators determined the blaze, which caused fire damage to a storage building, a connecting breezeway and smoke damage to an office inside the church, was intentionally set; and according to the church’s pastor, witnesses say a white juvenile is responsible.
The Rev. Runney Patterson said he was attending a celebration in Minneapolis when around 5:30 p.m. on April 28 he was flooded with calls alerting him to the blaze. He said when he arrived witnesses told him a young white male with reddish hair set the fire.
“When I first heard what happened I said it was a hate crime,” said Patterson. “I can’t fully know what was going on in the mind of the person who set the fire, but to set a house of worship on fire; that’s hate. Why would anyone have a desire to do something like that?”
Patterson said he hasn’t received any prior threats but said the church’s vans have been previously vandalized.
Steve Linders, public information officer with the St. Paul Police said they are treating the arson as a hate crime.
“Any time we have vandalism or arson at a place of worship we go into the investigation treating it as a possible hate crime,” said Linders. “You look at what’s going on around the country and everyone’s awareness is heightened.”
Earlier in April several African-American churches in Louisiana were victim to arson; the suspect a white male who is the son of a law enforcement officer. In November a Pittsburgh synagogue was targeted by a gunman who killed 11 and injured seven. The day before New Hope was set fire, a synagogue near San Diego was targeted by a gunman that resulted in the killing of a 60-year-old woman and the injuring of three others including the synagogue’s rabbi and a young child.
According to the FBI, hate crimes were up 17 percent in 2017 from the previous year and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center it logged 27 hate crimes this past April – almost one a day.
Linders said the fire set at New Hope affects more than just the members of the church.
“It is traumatizing to the parishioners, but when a place of worship is targeted it affects the community as a whole,” said Linders. “So we’re giving it our full attention. We don’t tolerate hate crimes in St. Paul.”
In the meantime, Patterson said the church is revising its security and surveillance measures in and around the church, but he and his congregation will continue to push forward.
“What I told some members of my congregation is, what the devil meant for evil, God meant for good, so some way, somehow, good is going to come out of this,” said Patterson.
Anyone with information about the April 28 arson is encouraged to contact the St. Paul Police Department. Tips can be made anonymously.