Community backs vandalized church
by Jane Greer
On May 26, the Rev. Al Boyce of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Valdosta, in southern Georgia, got a message no minister wants to hear: The building has been vandalized. When he arrived, he was stunned by the damage. All of the floor-to-ceiling windows were broken. The church’s artwork was ravaged, the piano overturned, and hymn books ripped apart. Shelves were swept clean, and the contents of the refrigerator were strewn all over the kitchen floor. Walls in almost all of the rooms were spray-painted with the number six. According to Boyce, the perpetrators were so thorough that the crime must have taken hours to commit.
The church building, completed in 1997, was designed by congregant Jim Ingram and built with church labor. It is situated in a heavily wooded area outside of town with only a middle school near by.
No group took responsibility for the vandalism, and weeks later the police still had no leads. According to Lars Leader, a church member and professor at Valdosta State University, the district attorney has not yet classified the act as a hate crime, although many believe it is. Leader speculates that the crime may have been provoked by the congregation’s known support for liberal causes. The South Georgia Coalition for Peace, an organization vocal in its opposition to the U.S.-led attack in Iraq, of which Leader and other congregants are members, used the church building for its meetings. Boyce, the congregation’s minister, has been active in the community, also drawing attention to the church.
The odd thing, Leader says, is that despite the devastation, nothing was stolen from the church. The vandalism was “more directed toward destroying what was important to the congregation—artwork, ceramics, other things in the sanctuary,” Leader told the Valdosta Daily Times.
The Valdosta community has rallied around the church. “This crime has built tremendous cohesiveness in the community,” says Boyce. A special service, “Unified Against Hate,” was held at the church building on Sunday, June 8, drawing an audience of 130. Clergy from the Valdosta Ministerial Association participated in the service along with several Unitarian Universalist ministers from area churches. Support was also shown by the local media. The Valdosta Daily Times editorialized, “Our community needs to be quite concerned about this possible crime of hate. The mainline denominations need to decry this vandalism from their pulpits and help pressure police to catch the culprits.”
And how do congregants feel? Says Dee Tait, president-elect of the congregation, “Most have taken the attitude that we’re not the building. We’re a group of people that stands for something.” Crews of volunteers moved in the very next day with shovels and gloves to begin the clean up process.
Boyce says that this incident will not deter the congregation from its
public witness. Next fall it will go on with a progressive religious education
program as scheduled. “Our resolve is strong,” says Boyce.
“We’re UUs. This is the way we’ve done religion for