Monday, July 11, 2005

Strange Fruit

In what appears on first analysis to be a case of vandalism motivated by anti-gay bigotry, the sanctuary of a United Church of Christ congregation in Middlebrook, Virginia, was dappled with graffiti and set on fire over the past weekend.

According to Sunday's edition of the Staunton News-Leader:

Members of St. John's Reformed United Church of Christ awoke Saturday morning to discover their church severely damaged by smoke and anti-gay graffiti painted on the side of the building.

Jerry Shultz, 53, of Middlebrook discovered the fire still smoldering when he stopped by early Saturday to cut grass.

He noticed graffiti on the side of the building and went inside to make sure everything was OK. He called down to Sue Gochenour, who was working in the basement and had come into the education building through a different entrance. She was fine.

When he opened the sanctuary door there was still a small flame.

"I think it burned itself out for the most part," Shultz said. "There was only a flicker the size of a lighter."

The vandalism contained anti-gay messages and a declaration that United Church of Christ members were sinners. The graffiti's message appeared to be a reference to the national church's decision last week to endorse gay and lesbian marriages, Shultz said.

The United Church of Christ's General Synod voted July 4 to approve a resolution that endorses gay and lesbian marriages. The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, spokesman for General Synod said he isn't aware of any other problems at United Church of Christ facilities across the country since the decision. The General Synod does not set policy for its congregations, which are autonomous.

"We, of course, are deeply saddened by the tragedy that has happened to one of our United Church of Christ congregations," Guess said. "Regardless of the cause, a church fire is perhaps a congregation's greatest challenge."

When motives are inspired by hate, "then grief is compounded with fear," Guess said.

Noting that the congregation was scheduled to celebrate its 225th anniversary yesterday, today's Richmond Times-Dispatch follows up with the reactions of the pastor, in an article by correspondent Calvin R. Trice:
A weekend fire under investigation as an anti-gay hate crime forced yesterday's homecoming service for St. John's Reformed United Church of Christ outside.

In response, the pastor, the Rev. Dorcas Lohr, changed her sermon, which she delivered to about 90 people gathered beneath tents and the shade of two pin oak trees.

Throughout the nation and the world, religious fundamentalists of all the major faiths are inflicting violence on those who don't believe exactly as they do, Lohr said.

The fire discovered in the church sanctuary Saturday morning and the anti-gay graffiti scrawled on the side of the building are the judgment and condemnation of such people, she said.

"I cannot accept that judgment. Nor do I think any member of this congregation can accept that judgment," Lohr said.

The good news is that the local community responded with compassion, despite the hatred that sears the souls of some of their neighbors. Reports the Times-Dispatch:
The Rev. John R. Deckenback, a regional United Church of Christ official, noted that all the chairs, tables and other materials at yesterday's outdoor service were donated by organizations throughout Augusta County.

"I think that the support that has been demonstrated by the community has been much more indicative of the fabric of the Shenandoah Valley than the tragedy of the fire," Deckenback said.
Virginia's non-partisan, statewide gay rights organization, Equality Virginia, reacted to news of the vandalism with a condemnation in a news release distributed today:
Equality Virginia today joined with all fair-minded people of faith in condemning an anti-gay hate crime against a UCC church in Middlebrook, Virginia.

"Our hearts go out to the people of St. John's Reformed UCC. No one should fear discrimination or hate violence because of religious beliefs or association with a particular faith," said John Humphrey, co-convener of the People of Faith for Equality in Virginia. "The First Amendment and the Virginia Constitution guarantee religious freedom and a respect for a diversity of religious viewpoints. We urge support for the church and encourage all people of faith to join in dialogue about the effects hate violence can have on any affected community."

* * *

"Hate violence is a form of domestic terrorism that leaves entire communities feeling victimized and vulnerable," said Dyana Mason, Equality Virginia Executive Director. “It is critical that law enforcement agencies use whatever tools are available to them in investigating and prosecuting this crime."

Equality Virginia has reached out to the church and UCC leadership offering support, and will be communicating with the local police department, the Attorney General and Commonwealth Attorney’s offices and the Federal Bureau of Investigation urging swift and appropriate action.

A national religious organization, the Interfaith Alliance, also condemned the violence against church property in a news release dated July 11:
Today, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of The Interfaith Alliance, condemned the hate crimes committed Saturday at St. John's Reformed Church (UCC) in Middlebrook, Virginia where a fire was set in the sanctuary and anti-gay graffiti was painted on the building. Despite the crimes, the United Church of Christ congregation celebrated their 225th anniversary Sunday with hope and strong community support.

"Our thoughts and encouragement are with the St. John congregation as they move forward following this malicious attack," Rev. Gaddy said. "On behalf of TIA, I would like to offer congratulations and admiration to the members of the Middlebrook community for coming together on such short notice and helping the congregation celebrate their historic legacy. We hope the community support continues and is strengthened in order to prevent such atrocities in the future."
So far there has been no published comment from the gubernatorial campaigns of Tim Kaine, Jerry Kilgore, or Russ Potts, nor from the attorney general campaigns of Creigh Deeds or Bob McDonnell. (Since McDonnell, as I recall, marketed himself as "hard on criminals," I would have expected a swift condemnation of this crime against private property and against people of religious faith. But perhaps my expectations are too high.)


Espartaco Romero said...

You are absolutely right to take the politicians to task for failing to speak out against this outrage. If they don't, they don't deserve to be governor.

Stephen said...

While it certainly would be shameful if this were the work of anti-gay forces, you might want to withhold judgment until the facts are in.

Many purported hates crimes, upon investigation, turn out to have been set by liberal activists intent on bringing public awareness to bear on their cause. For instance, in one highly publicized instance, a college student reported that she was receiving hate mail because she was gay. Turned out she sent the mail to herself. A professor in California trashed her own car and painted anti-Semitic insults on it, then called the police to report that hate mongers had trashed her car.

So, you might want to wait a bit before you pronounce sentence.