Faith and Forgiveness

Their church was defiled. But their spirit was not broken. An Eastern Shore congregation gathers strength and asks why.

January 21, 2003|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

PARSONSBURG - Every pew is full for the afternoon service at the Mount Calvary Holiness Church - every pew but one. There wasn't enough time (or stain) to cover "Next time you'll burn," which had been etched into the pew, so it was removed. There is no need to remind everyone of the ugliness that scrawled, ripped and sliced its way into this rural, black church.

"The devil did it to harm us," says Velma Wilson, 68, who first came to Mount Calvary 50 years ago - the year it opened. She has since moved on to another church in another town, but she's here today for the special service, the first held in the church since the vandalism.

The desecration occurred sometime between Dec. 26 and Dec. 28, the day Assistant Pastor Matthew Leonard returned to look in on the church. Electricians had just put in the new chandeliers and paddle fan. The wiring had needed serious work; they couldn't plug in the fan and organ at the same time. But now the wiring was up-to-date, and the carpet was new, too. The insurance man was due out, because Leonard was considering insuring the church for the first time.

Today, a frigid Sunday in mid-January, the Baptist church is packed with its black members and visiting white ministers and guests. When was the last time this roadside church had 40 worshippers! "I think," says Velma Johnson, "that it's going to bring the black and white churches together." Maybe. Certainly for today.

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do, Leonard repeats throughout his sermon. Built like George Foreman, the 42- year-old Leonard recites the passage from St. Luke maybe 20 times and each time, people echo Amen. "It's time to move on," Leonard says. It's time to forgive.

"I don't know what Satan meant by this - but it didn't work," Leonard says in a voice that could rattle any church's windows. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Amen. Still, it's all right to ask God a question, Leonard exhorts. He tells his church that it's all right to ask:


Parsonsburg (pop. 2,407) was founded in Wicomico County in 1866 by farmers, millers and carpenters all named Parsons. Ocean City to the east, Salisbury just to the west, Parsonsburg remains a rural town - with volunteer firefighters, tilting tombstones, a Ruritan Club, Texaco station (pretty good coffee), a corner grocer offering 99-cent scrapple lunches - and one blip of Parsonsburg Road featuring tennis shoes hanging from telephone lines. It's still a place, as a local saying goes, where people wear pajamas and live life slow.

Visitors making the drive to Parsonsburg might notice it's near a stretch of Route 50 dedicated to the "Moses of her People" - Harriet Tubman, who helped 300 slaves escape to freedom. Motorists might note a highway marker signaling the birthplace of another Eastern Shore native and historical black figure, Frederick Douglass. Beyond these histories, one turns off Route 50 and passes the cemetery, firehouse and Texaco station. Mount Calvary Holiness Church is on the right.

The pastor is Maxine Brittingham. That's what the church sign says. But she has been in a nursing home for a few years, so Leonard returned to his hometown in 2000 to revive Mount Calvary. Twenty-five members or so. "If they all come, you know," he says. When Leonard stopped by the church on Dec. 28, something felt wrong.

The church's upright piano - its keys like coffee-stained teeth - was vandalized. "KKK Rules" was scratched into its wood.

Three high-backed chairs in the pulpit were each marked with a "K."

The back white walls read "WHITE POWER."

Three chair cushions were slashed.

The skins of the drum set were cut.

The church organ bench was marked with "KKK."

The purple curtains were torn down.

The lid of the toilet was crammed in the toilet bowl.

Wine bottles in bags had been left; the smell of cigarettes was pungent.

Recording equipment was stolen.

One pew read, "Next time you'll burn."

The church banner over the altar - "Better is an end of a thing than the Beginning" - was ripped down.

A glass-framed proclamation, dedicated to Brittingham, was shattered then torn. The empty frame was hung back on the wall.

Finally, pages of the church's Bible lay shredded on the carpet near the altar. The 50-year-old, King James', leather-bound bible is damaged beyond repair.

"They took our word and destroyed it," the minister says. "They wanted to inflict pain on us. They were making a statement: `I don't care about what is sacred. I don't care about your God. I was here, and I want you to know I was here.' "

The assistant pastor called the police that afternoon. He called Brittingham, who told him to try to keep the church doors open. He decided the older members wouldn't be allowed to see their church this way. If he had to, he would put a tarp over the piano to cover the ugliness. The walls would have to be white-washed. In the meantime, they could have Sunday service at his mother's house down the road. But they would get back in their church.

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