The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We’ve never had anything like this’: Racist, threatening message left on door of black church

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With the racist words freshly scrubbed from the door of his church, the Rev. Todd Robertson searched for a Scripture reading that would set the right tone for his congregation — somewhere between hopeful and defiant.

Most of all, he didn’t want parishioners at his mostly black church in Evansville, Ind., to be intimidated.

So he built Sunday’s sermon around Matthew 5:16, which speaks about letting light shine in dark times.

“I told them we have to understand that the light must be projected during the midst of darkness,” he told The Washington Post. “There’s a lot of hatred in the world. And hatred begets hatred. The only thing that can drive out hatred is love.”

Days earlier, that hatred was on display at his church. On the side door, someone wrote “Kill all Koons.” On the church van: “Koons inside.” Parishioners found a third hateful statement on a nearby trash can.

Evansville police are investigating the case as a hate crime. Liberty Missionary Baptist Church is the city’s oldest black house of worship, Robertson said. It was built by former slaves in 1865 near downtown Evansville, a city that is 13 percent black.

No one has been arrested in connection with the vandalism, and police have not released the name of a suspect. Over the holiday weekend, investigators canvassed the neighborhood around the church and sought potential witnesses, Evansville police Capt. Andy Chandler told The Post. They are also trying to see whether any private surveillance cameras caught someone lurking on church property on Thanksgiving Day.

For the church, Thanksgiving was a day of service. Every year, Liberty Missionary opens its doors on the holiday to feed the needy. This year, parishioners and volunteers fed nearly 300 people.

The meal attracts people of all races — both those eating it and those volunteering to serve it.

The dishes were washed and the tables were put up when Robertson received a call telling him about the graffiti.

A man who lives across the street from the church reported seeing a lone person in the parking lot after the church emptied.

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As word spread, Robertson learned that parishioners had found a similar message two weeks ago, written in chalk on the church’s sidewalk. But the church members who found it quickly washed it away and didn’t report it.

The incidents were the first race-fueled occurrences at the church in Robertson’s 17 years as pastor. “We’ve never had anything like this,” he told the Courier-Press shortly after the incident was reported.

Still, in its 151-year history, the church has had a front-row seat to some of the city’s darkest moments.

“We’re right downtown, we’re literally right down the street from the courthouse,” he said. The church has “been here when there was lynching downtown, and people still came to church on Sunday.”

While Robertson was dismayed about the graffiti, he said it gives the church — and the city — a chance to confront racist attitudes that some thought were dark relics of Indiana’s past.

“In order to begin to heal, you have to face it,” he said. “When it comes to salvation, to become saved, you have to acknowledge that you have sinned and come up short. You have to acknowledge that there is a problem.”

In the 1920s, Indiana had the highest number of Klan members per capita of any state. In 1923, the city of Kokomo, 200 miles away from Evansville, drew tens of thousands of Klan members for the induction of a new grand dragon, according to the New York Times.

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The ceremony, on July 4, 1923, “is considered by many scholars to be the largest single Klan gathering in the nation’s history,” according to the Times.

Things have improved in the intervening decades, Robertson said. But he said the incendiary rhetoric during the presidential campaign has brought out the worst in some — including, apparently, the person who crept onto church property Thursday night.

In nearby Morgantown, someone spray-painted a swastika and the worlds “Heil Trump” on an Episcopal church, according to The Post. And earlier this month, a church in Maryland was defaced with the words: “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Between the Nov. 9 election and Nov. 14, there were 437 reports of “hateful intimidation and harassment” in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Of those, the center said 89 were anti-black.

Robertson said the election, and some of incendiary things said on the campaign trail, may have emboldened racists in his city.

“It seems to be a time now when things have resurrected where they may have lied dormant before,” he said. “But no one makes anyone do anything. Someone can say something to make [hatred] rise up, but whatever is in you is in you.”

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