The small white church stands atop a hill on a Mount Airy farm donated to black sharecroppers in 1893, when racism was said to be on the decline and churches began opening their doors to everyone.
It wasnamed Old Simpson Church, after a white army colonel who helped the sharecroppers obtain the land. For the dozen or so parishioners, mostof whom lived in a small black neighborhood of Mount Airy, the one-room church was an answer to a prayer.
And in 98 years, western Howard County always has been a good home, says church piano player Kathryn Myers, who got a rude surprise onthree recent occasions when the church -- now named Simpson United Methodist -- was ransacked by vandals.
Police say the break-ins were committed by three white teen-agers who got carried away during late-night drinking binges. The three allegedly burned a Bible and triedto set the building afire.
The church, attended by 50 blacks who still come from the old neighborhood along Schaeffersville Road, always has been an unusual presence in a predominantly white rural setting.
But Myers, who has been attending Simpson for 41 years, said she won't dwell on the attack and said she has not lost faith in God orher community.
"This is the first incident I can ever recall where someone's tried to hurt us," Myers said. "Once we've cleaned everything up, it'll pass. We're still pretty strong with the Lord, he hasn't let us down."
The church has been a fixture in Mount Airy, and the town's population of about 4,000 -- which is almost exclusively white -- always has been accepting of the small black church on the edge of town, Myers said.
"We still have a few white folks stop in once in a while. Our doors will still always be open to them. Nothing has changed," Myers said.
Simpson United Methodist Church has but 16 pews and less than a dozen frail wooden chairs for its Sunday services, which often focus on how poor people "always have hope, no matter how dark it may seem. I try to teach them it's not the quantity oflife, but the quality that matters," says Rev. Jane W. Jenkins.
It will still cost the church about $2,000 to repair the damage causedby the vandals, who Sunday night ripped a cross from the ceiling andsmashed glassware.
Myers' son, Kevin, 29, is the third generationof the Myers family to attend the church. Almost all of the church's50 parishioners are black, elderly and poor, said Kevin Myers, who is a Columbia auto mechanic.
"It was devastating that this happened," said Myers, who has many relatives buried on the church property. "But I think the kids who did this just need to learn to lean on the Lord a little more. I don't think they hate us."
Myers' uncle, Edward Myers, 41, who has been going to church all his life, said he wasn't so sure.
"It hurt a lot when I saw it. I thought maybe it was the KKK or something, because they're around here," Edward Myers said. "You just never know."
The church has much support from the local residents. About five weeks ago, Ku Klux Klan representatives from Frederick County were in nearby Lisbon to talk to local people about the organization and its aims, said Rev. Scott Medlock, pastor of Lisbon United Methodist Church.
"We were outraged. We feel a very close kinship with Simpson, who we look at as our brothers and sisters,"he said. Medlock's all-white congregation of 220 people occasionallyholds Bible classes with the neighboring church.
The two congregations were once under the same pastor, but Simpson broke off years ago, mostly because they had a strong desire to maintain their identityas a black church, Medlock said.
"This is not a community that would turn its back on someone because of race," Medlock said. "People here are very progressive. Simpson is very much a part of our community."
Jenkins, 44, who four years ago became the church's first female pastor, said many of the older parish members -- some of whom have been attending since 1948 -- were fearful in recent weeks due to the vandalism.
The fact that the vandals struck the church three times, and most recently spattered blood on the pews and the altar, leads Jenkins to the conclusion that "it was more than just a few kids horsing around. It seemed very racial and possibly satanic to me."
Police said the three teens who were arrested, two of whom are from Mount Airy and one from Gaithersburg, told investigators they were not even aware that the church had a predominantly black congregation.
"Some of the parishioners have come to me and said, 'Why us? Why hasthis happened?' "said Jenkins, 44, who took over four years ago as the first female pastor of the church.
"I told them that even though it's a fearful situation, we can't be driven by fear. Our ancestorswouldn't have been," she said. "Yes, we are a poor parish, but we are very rich in spirit, and we'll get over this."