Today I was saddened to read about a bias crime involving arson and hateful graffiti committed against a sister United Church of Christ church, St. John's Reformed UCC in Middlebrook, Virginia, on July 9, the day before their 225th anniversary celebration. Fortunately, there was no loss of life; property damage was limited to between $50,000 and $75,000.
St. John's was founded by German immigrants who fled religious persecution in Europe. Sadly, the ill-spelled graffiti scrawled on the church's red brick walls suggest intolerance as a motive. The church has a woman pastor and includes among its members a same-sex couple active in the choir. The fire damaged the church's choir loft, but did not spread.
Like the smell of smoke, fear of violence can linger. This is not the first arson against a UCC church in the largely rural Shenandoah Valley and yet county and state reaction has been mute or cautious (for example, see "Is this a hate crime?" in the Roanoke Times). However, the FBI always investigates attacks against religious organizations as possible violations of civil rights. The prompt and unwavering national attention and the generous outpouring of support from the local community have helped begin to repair the psychic damage (for example, see the Washington Post).
Determined to move forward, the St. John's congregation proceeded with its anniversary celebration on July 10. As conference minister the Rev. Dr. John R. Deckenback said, "On the one hand, you had this awful, petty violence, both in word and in deed. On the other hand, you have the real fabric of the community showing through by embracing the congregation."
My prayer this evening is for the pastor, members, and friends of St. John's Reformed Church; the community of Middlebrook; those investigating this crime; and the troubled perpetrator of this violence.