Written by Daniel Hazard
Anti-gay hatred was the motive behind an arson attempt on a UCC church near Staunton, Va., federal investigators have confirmed.
St. John's Reformed UCC in Middlebrook, Va., was vandalized sometime early on July 9 with antigay graffiti. Fire was set to a stack of hymnals, resulting in damage to pews and the choir loft.
Bart McEntire, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, told the Staunton (Va.) News Leader, "It's arson. We're confident on that." Investigators and church leaders said the violence was clearly motivated by anti-gay bias. Graffiti included spray-painted phrases such as "gays lover" "lesb hell" and "sinners."
The church was targeted, apparently, in response to a much-publicized decision by the UCC's General Synod on July 4 to approve a same-gender marriage equality resolution.
"The graffiti appears to be related to Synod issues," said the Rev. John Deckenback, Central Atlantic Conference Minister. "We have put out a note to all our clergy and congregations in the area, asking them to be vigilant and to be in prayer."
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, said the entire 1.3-million- member denomination has been offering prayers of support for the church and its pastor, the Rev. Dorcas J. Lohr.
"My heart goes out to the people of St. John's UCC," Thomas said. "The violation of sacred space is traumatic for a congregation, particularly when a message of hate targets a church's efforts to reach out in the spirit of Christ's love to all people."
"I knew that the decision of our General Synod to affirm marriage equality for same-gender couples would be controversial both within and beyond the church," he said. "It saddens me to realize that, for a few, disagreement has moved to acts of violence."
The attack came the day before the congregation celebrated its 225th anniversary with a homecoming service. Despite the fire, about 90 members and visitors gathered to commemorate the occasion under tents on the church's lawn.
In her sermon, Lohr reminded members of the congregation's history as a German Reformed church and its historic opposition to slavery and its support of civil rights.
Earlier this year, Deckenback said, two other churches in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley were vandalized near the time the UCC's Stillspeaking Initiative began running television ads welcoming all people, including gays and lesbians.