Police hope the fourth time is the charm in Maple Grove, Minn. Pilgrims United Church of Christ has been defaced four times in the last few months, but there now is a sense of relief and hope after a man was caught on tape on Sunday, throwing eggs at the building. The small congregation of 40 members, which has been a target of what police call a bias crime for its inclusion and support of LGBT couples, is hoping the vandal can now be identified.
Surveillance video, which has been widely shared on news programs, shows a man in a wheelchair approach Pilgrims UCC before 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 28, and throw eggs at the front door. There is also graffiti written on the front of the building.
"The fact that he is wheelchair bound perhaps gives pause for reflection on the source of the bitterness he may hold," said Steve Hepokoski, a Pilgrims UCC member. "This all hit us at a difficult time of transition with Pastor Robin [Raudabaugh] leaving and struggling with how we might continue our ministry in Maple Grove. The relatively quick resolution of these hateful acts gives us renewed hope."
Police told local news organizations they are treating the crime as a hate crime. "The words and terminology used on the church itself lead us to believe that it is a bias-motivated crime based on sexual orientation," said Maple Grove Police Captain Keith Terlinden. Police set up the surveillance camera after the third incident in late June, and they believe the same individual is responsible for all the acts.
The building was vandalized first in May, then twice more in June. In each case eggs were thrown at the façade of Pilgrims UCC, graffiti scrawled near the entrance, and handwritten hate-messages citing Old Testament passages calling Pilgrims UCC the "church of Sodom and Gomorrah." In November, when the state legislature was considering a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, signs were stolen from the congregation's lawn, and more recently the front doors were handcuffed shut, leading to a range of reaction from the members.
"The members' reactions to the vandalism were all over the board," said Hepokoski. "Some elated that our stance on inclusion was known, and even ruffling some feathers. Some were angry, and some quite scared. The handcuffs were an escalation that shook everyone."
Pilgrims UCC was one of several UCC congregations in Minnesota this spring that rallied in support of a state law that would permit LGBT couples to legally marry in the state. The law was adopted, and goes into effect on Thursday, Aug. 1. An Open and Affirming Congregation since 1990, Pilgrims UCC has already invited LGBT people to hold their ceremonies in their church.