It was a bit chilly, but the blue sky held promise. The season's first softball practice had finally arrived. With any luck, the preacher would keep the sermon short and I'd be on time for spring's opening celebration.

But the anticipation disappeared with the Rev. Miriam Jackson's first words to her small, white flock at the Dickerson United Methodist Church. Her other congregation, the black Elijah United Methodist Church in Poolesville, had been vandalized and the letters "KKK" had been carved into the communion table. Miriam Jackson, a pretty woman with a wide smile who thrives on thumping, emotional sermons, showed traces of the rage that seized her when she first viewed the desecration on Saturday. She'd keep today's message short because she had to get back to her other charge. Would any of us care to come along?

Elijah's gravel parking lot was full and cars overflowed on to the grass shoulder of Route 109. The sight took some of the edge off our impotent anger. Some, but not all. At least not mine.

I felt betrayed. Having just bought my first house, I was proudly leaving my native suburbia behind for the "bucolic" life. The long commute (it's so far out the creeks only run three days a week) was worth it. The stain of racial hatred couldn't have spread this far. There's just too much space for people to get on each others' nerves. The naivet,e of white liberalism has tremendous staying powers.

Inside, the church (less expensive stained glass and a piano instead of Dickerson's organ) was filling up. A third of the congregation was white. One man had a two-tone farmer's face (white forehead and a permanent sunburn beneath) that had survived the long winter. Smiles were passed around and few words were spoken.

The opening hymn swelled raggedly to a closing verse of near raucous intensity. Then the white-robed Miriam Jackson pointed over her shoulder at the altar and said, "Before us, in reality, we see our broken world." Brother Clyde and Brother Cliff brought forward the table with its "cruel lacerations" and the preacher told us that on Saturday night she'd closed her curtains and checked her locks for the first time since moving to upper Montgomery County three years ago.

Others followed her. A man from our church placed flowers before the scarred table and offered part of last week's collection. The church's district superintendent said he was angry and felt "guilty" about being white. A black Poolesville High School teacher said there had been bomb threats at the school last week. Human rights officials and members of other churches joined the chorus of community guilt and sharing. Each was answered with a round of "Amens."

The service closed with another loud burst of singing, and some of us lingered to run our hands over the gouged letters and speculate at great length about repairs.

Many of Elijah's parishioners are from tiny Jerusalem, settled by slaves who swam the nearby Potomac River from Virginia. Their roots are deep and enduring. Miriam Jackson's two churches will probably remain segregated. But whoever dug into that polished wood--adolescent vandals or the real, pathetic thing--did us all a great service. We know who our neighbors are now.