Crime still stuns church

Cemetery: The vandalism of an Annapolis church's graveyard leaves members feeling shocked and hurt.

March 06, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

To some people, Celestine Henderson's habit of walking in a cemetery seemed strange. But for Henderson, a lifelong member of Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church in Annapolis, the church's sprawling graveyard was the ideal spot for an early evening stroll.

"I always told people that a cemetery is the most peaceful place to be," said Henderson, chairwoman of the church's board of trustees.

For two centuries, the cemetery at Asbury Broadneck was a place of peace - an undulating field dotted with headstones and flowers. This year, however, it became the scene of a shocking crime.

On Jan. 3, members of the church discovered that their cemetery had been desecrated by vandals who smashed and toppled more than 30 headstones.

The crime - for which police have no suspects - shook the 500-member African-American congregation of Asbury Broadneck.

"We felt devastated," said the Rev. Barbara Sands, pastor of the church for 12 years. "The first thing I wondered was: `Who would do such a thing? And why?'"

Sands recently held a meeting for members of the church, the community and the news media to call attention to the incident, which members suspect occurred New Year's Eve. Late that night, families who left the evening service early reported seeing three youths running from the church parking lot.

Police in Anne Arundel County continue to investigate the crime, which caused about $16,000 in damage. Lt. Joseph Jordan, a spokesman for the Police Department, said investigators suspect area teen-agers in the crime.

Lt. Ken Schlein, who is assigned to the case, said investigators are not considering the act a hate crime.

"We have no idea why it happened - no leads, no information," Schlein said. "It is very sinister and mind-boggling, and it would be nice if some information surfaces for closure."

Community outrage

Outraged by the crime, 12 members of RESPECT, a consortium of 23 African-American organizations, met Thursday night in Annapolis to draft a statement in support of Asbury Broadneck.

"We expressed our collective condemnation of the desecration of this property," said Carl O. Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens and a member of RESPECT. "Anne Arundel County has, in the past, been a victim of a series of hate crimes. There's no way of knowing at this point whether this was wanton violence or if someone did it for racially motivated reasons."

In August 2001, vandals desecrated Rapture Church in Lothian, stealing food and equipment and writing racial epithets on the walls. No one was arrested in the crime. Later that month, Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee formed a team to investigate and prosecute suspected hate crimes.

To help prevent future attacks on Asbury Broadneck, Sands said the church plans to install lighting in its parking lot and cemetery. In addition, police officers and church members now regularly patrol the grounds of Asbury Broadneck, at the end of Broadneck Road on a wooded lot that borders U.S. 50.

Sands said that if she could talk to the vandals, she would say: "We are praying for them and their families, and asking God to forgive them." She then added: "We're also asking God to prick their consciences so they do not get involved in such an atrocious act again."

Meanwhile, members of Asbury Broadneck remain stunned at the attack on their historic cemetery, home to headstones - marked and unmarked - that date to the late 1800s.

"Some people felt this very deeply," said Mary Colbert, a member of the church for more than 40 years and a teacher at Asbury Broadneck's elementary school. "This is a family church - an outgoing congregation that's full of love. Why would anyone want to desecrate our cemetery?"

Annapolis resident Monica Hunt said that for her family, the attack was painfully personal. The vandals toppled and cracked the heart-shaped headstone memorializing Hunt's mother, Jeralin Turner, which Hunt regularly decorated with plastic flowers. Turner died in 1992.

"It was like a break in our heart when we saw it," said Hunt, who brought her husband and two of her sons to the cemetery to see the headstone, now lying flat in the mud. "When we put our folks there to rest, they should be able to lay there in peace."

On a recent afternoon stroll of the cemetery, Celestine Henderson shook her head, stopping to examine overturned stones caked with mud and shards of concrete scattered in the straw-colored grass. Henderson, who oversees the upkeep of the grounds of Asbury Broadneck, was in charge of informing the congregation of the crime during a service several days after it was discovered. From the pulpit, she said, she saw members react with a mix of sadness and anger.

Her reaction, she said, was outrage.

"It made me feel sick," she said. "When I saw it, my stomach turned and my heart hurt. What would possess someone to do this? It's just creepy."

Henderson is most disturbed by a cross that was ripped from its headstone, turned upside down and planted in the earth.

Henderson is now charged with the grim task of contacting the relatives of the deceased whose graves were desecrated. With the help of church historians and elder members, she is also trying to match unmarked stones that were tossed and smashed to the correct burial plots.

Looking ahead

Henderson said she is heartened by the early spring weather, marked by the tips of colorful crocus buds beginning to push out of the cemetery ground. By the start of summer, Henderson said she hopes to walk again among the flowers and the tranquil rows of restored tombstones.

"It won't be done overnight," she said. "But we'll get there with the good weather, some kindness and a lot of patience."

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