The rancid odor of smoke hung thick in the air as federal agents searched for clues in the sanctuary of the little church in the dell.

When investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives departed, the Rev. Dorcas Lohr locked the front door behind her. Suddenly, the church's bucolic location between a cemetery and a pasture where cows graze made her feel isolated and vulnerable.

Last weekend, someone broke into St. John's Reformed United Church of Christ. The perpetrator smashed a window of the fellowship room, then crawled in and set fire to a pew and the choir platform where the organist plays. The only clue to motive was anti-gay graffiti spray-painted on the red brick wall in the rear.

The arsonist's message -- and ire -- broke through a hodgepodge of poor spelling and abbreviations: "Gays lover," "Lesb hell," "UCC siners" and "Sinner."

Five days earlier, the General Synod of the national church announced its endorsement of same-sex marriage, though its decision is not binding on individual churches.

The St. John's congregation of 150 has never taken a position on the issue. By all accounts, most parishioners would oppose it. But as the only UCC church in the area, St. John's became a target.

"It's clearly a hate crime," said Lohr, sitting on a couch in the fellowship room where glass from the broken window still littered the floor. "It disturbs me deeply, that kind of hate message that says if you don't believe the way we believe, then we can destroy you."

The arson at St. John's has shaken many gay men and lesbians in the Shenandoah Valley, who say they are saddened by what has happened. They say that even in conservative rural Virginia, they have largely found acceptance at work and in their neighborhoods.

"I don't think people flaunt it," said Bruce Joffe, who lives with his partner in nearby Staunton, about 160 miles from Washington. "We haven't had a gay pride parade here. You won't ride up every street and find a rainbow flag. But people are accepted. To hear about this church, it's a couple of small minds doing dastardly deeds in a community that otherwise is a beacon of light in all of the valley."

The arson is being investigated by Virginia State Police, the FBI and the ATF, who have appealed to the public for tips in the incident. They consider it an important case to solve, said Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Washington division of ATF, which includes Virginia.

"The reason hate crimes are so insidious is that people cannot change who they are," he said. "It may be a small church in rural Virginia, but every gay citizen who sees it is victimized by it."

The fire last Saturday occurred the day before St. John's celebrated its 225th anniversary. The church was founded by German immigrants who had fled religious feuding in Europe. Many of their descendants are parishioners.

Lohr had attended the July 4 conference in which the national church announced its policy recommendation. In reporting back to her parishioners, she said that at St. John's, many items other than same-sex marriage would be on the congregation's agenda.

"It's clear they would not be in favor of it," said Lohr, who declined to give her opinion.

Despite its sentiments against same-sex marriage, the congregation has welcomed an openly gay couple who started attending St. John's this year.

"This church has been really good," said Devin Nicely, 37, whose partner was barred from singing in the choir at another church he attended when he told the pastor of his sexual orientation. At St. John's, Nicely added, "people have not treated us as being any different or anything."

Many churches nearby responded to the incident with an outpouring of support. A Presbyterian church down the road provided two tents for the anniversary service. A Lutheran church offered its kitchen to prepare the food.

A volunteer fire department supplied tables and chairs, and neighbors lent a generator, a refrigerated truck and a tractor for the event.

"On the one hand, you had this awful, petty violence, both in word and in deed," said the Rev. John Deckenback, an official with the church's Central Atlantic Conference. "On the other hand, you have the real fabric of the community showing through by embracing the congregation."

No elected official, however, has issued a public condemnation. Many would consider that grandstanding, said Dean Welty of the Valley Family Forum, a Shenandoah Valley group that promotes policies upholding the sanctity of traditional nuclear families.

"Everyone deplores this," he said of the church vandalism. "To stand up and say it is gratuitous -- it's assumed this is not the character of the valley."

Others consider the lack of denouncements telling.

"It's shocking to me that we haven't heard more of an outcry about it," said the Rev. Robin Gorsline, whose Metropolitan Community Church congregation in Richmond is made up mostly of gays shunned by other churches. "It deserves to be condemned."

Gorsline, who helped found People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, said he was not surprised at the vandalism to St. John's.

"The rather strong drumbeat of anti-gay rhetoric in Virginia among many public figures helps perpetuate a climate of negativity that can lead people to express their feelings in these negative ways," he said.

"Healthy people don't set churches on fire, so those who make statements are not entirely responsible. But it's important not to have a climate in which people take actions that they feel are what the community and the leaders are saying," Gorsline said.

For now, St. John's is struggling to repair the building and soothe its shock. The fire caused $50,000 to $70,000 in damage -- more than the church's annual budget -- although most of it is covered by insurance. Lohr was preparing a sermon last week suggesting that it is time for the congregation to reaffirm what it is and what it stands for.

One subtle indication of the congregation's values stood out the day after the fire. At the anniversary service, under the makeshift tents, Dale Taylor, Nicely's partner, led the congregation singing hymns.

The Rev. Dorcas Lohr of St. John's Reformed United Church of Christ in Middlebrook, Va., surveys the fire's damage. Anti-gay graffiti covered a rear wall. The attack left spray-painted anti-gay slurs on the outside of the church, and part of the interior burned.