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Responses to Notre Dame tragedy give more questions than answers

The fire at Notre Dame last Monday was a shock to the world. Not only did it seemingly come out of the blue, but there was simply nothing that could be done. Onlookers could only watch as the fire spread across the roof and eventually caused the church’s famed spire to fold in half and fall.

At lunch, As I watched videos of the fire uploaded on Twitter and various news outlets, conversations about the nature of this event broke out amongst the people at my table:  was this an international tragedy, and how was the world supposed to recover? Surely they would have to rebuild it, but how? Do they try and build it exactly as it was before the fire? Was that possible?

All of these concerns were being launched to and fro, and then eventually moved over to the discussion of money. That was no small fire, and Notre Dame is no small church, so clearly it was going to cost a hefty amount of money to repair. At the time it was unclear where the money was going to come from and how much. But, a mere two days after the fire quelled, any concerns we had about the cost of the project were gone. In just two days, the French government reported they had gathered $950 million (!) from individuals, companies and institutions.

That number left me dumbstruck, but not surprised.

Notre Dame is an internationally revered church and a hotspot for tourism in France. Repairing it was no question, and the funds had to come from somewhere. If French families and businesses scraped together $1 billion to give towards the restoration efforts in just two days, then good for them. It wasn’t until a friend of mine told me about her conversation with one of our RA’s about the meaning behind the raising of that money that I began to understand why the speed at which that money was raised was culturally important.

Beginning at the end of March, three historically black churches in Louisiana were burned down in a suspected hate crime in a period of 10 days. A GoFundMe set up to help raise funds for rebuilding the churches had raised $50,000 of their goal of $1.8 million as of April 14th. After the Notre Dame fire, however, people saw how much money was raised in two days for the rebuilding of Notre Dame in comparison to the Louisiana churches. The GoFundMe for the three churches was subsequently recirculated in the hopes that people see their goal. After that recirculation, and thanks to several celebrities who promoted the GoFundMe on social media, in just a matter of days the churches received an outpouring of support and surpassed their $1.8 million goal.

Before my friend told me about them, I hadn’t heard a single word about the Louisiana church fires. This could just be a product of me not checking the news consistently enough or not having a diverse enough pool of news outlets. But from talking to other people in my dorm or back at home, they hadn’t heard of the three churches burning down before Notre Dame either. This was a bit unsettling, but also wasn’t that surprising.

What was unsettling was the idea that if the Notre Dame fire hadn’t occurred, the GoFundMe for the churches probably would not have gotten the attention and support that had because of the fire. To me, my friend, and my RA that brought this discussion up, this was a problem that didn’t seem to have an easy resolution. We would like to say that the churches would have gotten the funding no matter what, but there’s really no telling if it would have blown up the way it did without the parallel to Notre Dame. Thinking about the circumstances through which the Louisiana church GoFundMe went viral, I don’t think I can reconcile the ‘sacrifice,’ which is what it seems like, of Notre Dame catching on fire that was needed to bring awareness to the Louisiana churches.

But alongside this feeling of needing a sacrifice to bring about good, there are many negative implications that come out of this situation as well. There is something innately disturbing about the French raising nearly $1 billion in three days for their church and three churches in the U.S. raising barely a fraction of that in twice the time. It speaks to wealth inequality of the highest degree, but also to the priorities of the Trump administration. The Trump administration has promised monetary aid to the French government to help pay for the rebuilding, but has offered nothing to the parish in Louisiana. Not only that, but Trump was quick to tweet condolences to France after the fire at Notre Dame, but has yet to even acknowledge the fires in Louisiana.

It would be wrong to just call out Trump for this reshuffling of priorities, though. Not all French citizens are thrilled that French President Emmanuel Macron has been quick to pledge large amounts of government funding to rebuilding Notre Dame. Not only do they see the rebuilding of the church as a less pressing issue facing their country than poverty or homelessness, but some 5,500 other churches in France in lesser provinces still seeking funding see this as Macron fulfilling a nickname given to him by some of his critics: the president of the rich.

Through this discussion of the good and bad of the fire, I don’t want it to seem like I am chastising those who are sad about Notre Dame. It is an international tragedy, and I too am sad that such a historically significant church got destroyed. But, it is worthwhile to look at the implications of the international response. For Macron and the French, I foresee the struggle of prioritizing the rebuilding will be a point of contention, and for the U.S., there is a certain expectation that Trump now turn and provide support to the churches and communities in his own country.

Contact Alex Durham at alex ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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