Louisiana church fires will be remembered with dance and music

Places of worship are revered as sacred places. They are places to connect with a higher being, celebrate life milestones, and seek comfort during times of pain and discomfort.

Inside churches and temples, vows are exchanged with partners, the lives of children are consecrated, and families mourn their loved ones after death.

When three historically black churches in the rural parish of St. Landry were burned down in 2019 by a white man, Performing Arts Serving Acadiana executive director Jackie Lyle knew she had to do something.

“I felt this call to respond in an artistic way to the issue of acts of violence against places of worship, reconciliation and redemption,” she said. “I was really embarrassed by (the burning of) these churches and all I could think was, ‘what can we do?’

“The way ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ tells this story, the way ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ tells this story, I believe we can tell this story through dance.”

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Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in St. Landry Parish was damaged by fire Thursday.

Lyle reached out to Adonis Rose, artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and Cleo Parker Robinson, artistic director of her own dance company in Denver, Colorado.

Together they are working to create a performing arts piece, “Sacred Spaces?”, with original music and dance that would reflect the impact of acts of hatred against places of worship.

Background:3 years after a hate crime set them on fire, the black churches of Saint-Landry rise from the ashes

They were able to obtain three grants through the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Arts Forward Program of the Association for Performing Arts Professionals.

“Over time, I developed an emotional connection to the story so much that I felt like I had those experiences,” Rose said. “We have to be aware of where we are right now and really try to think about how we can make positive changes.”

When composing her music, Rose said she thought about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Bible. Death was when churches burned, burial was the pain and sorrow of congregations, and resurrection was being able to rebuild churches and being able to rejoice, he said.

As part of the creation process, the community was asked to share their feelings about the fires. Lyle, Rose, Parker Robinson, a dancer with her company Winifred Harris and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Theodore Foster, an assistant professor of history, led the conversations at the Acadiana Center for the Arts and the church Baptist Missionary St. Mary, which is one of the destroyed churches.

“What’s hard is being in a community and really understanding the pain in the community and that’s what we wanted,” Robinson said. “We asked for this. We want to know exactly what it does.”

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Some of the church members told the artistic team that they still had a hard time forgiving, Foster said. A man said he carried out electrical work on the building which burned down. For days he wondered if he had had the church razed, Foster said.

Participants in the ACA listening session spoke of the connectedness created through church attendance. One woman said she grew up in church and was taught that church is family. When the St. Landry parish buildings burned down, she said she felt like her own family had been victimized.

(Left to right) Winifred Harris, Cleo Parker Robinson, Adnois Rose and Theodore Foster lead a listening session at the Acadiana Center for the Arts focused on how people felt after three churches were burned down in the parish of St. Landry in 2019.

Another woman said she didn’t realize people still cared about churches and their congregation since the event had largely disappeared from the news cycle.

Each testimony will be used to shape the final production of “Sacred Spaces?”.

“So many experiences in life aren’t believed until they become close,” Harris said. “We have the opportunity to take that knowledge and share it.”

The show will premiere September 17 in Denver, Colorado, and PASA plans to bring it on tour to Acadiana in the future.

Contact Ashley White at adwhite@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @AshleyyDi.