Unitarian Universalist congregation in Finksburg reports wave of vandalism

Church stands against hate

November 26, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

The vandalism started in late August, with BB gunshots to the windows. One pellet cracked the glass in a star-like formation in the corner window of the sanctuary, and two others left deep indentations in a downstairs youth room.

It seemed an isolated incident, just some kids causing trouble.

Then the Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila came across messages written in the dust on two front-porch tables. A swastika, an expletive and other words clearly directed at the Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalist congregation in Finksburg.

He cleaned them up.

A week later, a church member stumbled across more messages.

And the new meditation garden, which church youths had built, also was hit. Its multicolored peace pole, which displays words for peace in German, Spanish, French and other languages, was desecrated.

The board of the 21-year-old congregation decided they could no longer ignore the "protracted campaign of intimidation," said Simoni-Wastila, who has served as pastor for six years.

They called the Carroll County Sheriff's Office to report the incidents in mid-September. This month, they went public.

Located on a quiet road off Route 140, the reddish-brown church with white trim is flanked by trees. Now some have been felled to heighten visibility and security. Stumps remain where silver and sugar maples once reached into the sky, towering over the meetinghouse.

Also gone are the shrubs around the building, Simoni-Wastila said. They've added lighting and asked for increased police patrols, he said, and changed the building's locks.

"This is not mindless or adolescent vandalism," Simoni-Wastila said. "We feel that, based upon some of the messages left out front, that we are being attacked because of our theological beliefs."

Coming out of the Jewish and Christian traditions, Unitarian Universalism emphasizes tolerance and respect for an individual's conscience and personal experience, Simoni-Wastila said.

"We are more on the liberal end of the theological spectrum," Simoni-Wastila said. "We find value in all the religions of the world."

The fact that a group so tolerant could experience such intolerance still perplexes the pastor. The church youths could not understand why someone would ruin a symbol of peace. Some members remain fearful because no one has been caught.

Whatever the reasons, the church of about 100 decided keeping silent wouldn't stop the vandalism or let those behind it know their actions were wrong.

"I don't think we should be the victim," said Sharon Kennedy, the congregation's president. "There are hate crimes in the county, and people need to be aware of that so they can stand up against it."

Simoni-Wastila turned to the Westminster Ministerium and other leaders for support after the incidents in September. The Rev. Tim Thomas, president of the Ministerium, said many minority religions tend to face abuse, at least verbally, from others.

"Anybody who stands out, whether it's religion or otherwise, tends to get picked on," Thomas said.

Still, Thomas said, he was surprised to hear about such activities in Carroll County. Vandalism of the mischievous variety - someone breaking things or breaking in to find money, for example - wasn't unusual. Yet specifically targeting a church seemed rare, he said.

That kind of vandalism is uncommon for the estimated 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations nationwide, said Janet Hayes, information officer for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Dissatisfaction with the church is often specific, such as fliers or emails opposing its stance of welcoming people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, she said.

In a year, the association probably receives about six reports of vandalism from congregations, Hayes said.

The Rev. Marty Kuchma, chairman of the Carroll County InterFaith Council, said the church had done an "excellent job" of reaching out.

"They've not left themselves isolated," Kuchma said. The more isolated people are, he added, "the more likely they are to be targeted."

Simoni-Wastila said his congregation plans to rededicate the garden and surrounding area in the spring.

The investigation into the incidents continues, said Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Phil Kasten. Kasten would not describe the messages left in the dust.

The Cedarhurst board has chosen not to elaborate on the messages left by the vandals.

"The issue is the purposeful destruction of the property," Simoni-Wastila said. "We're not going to get into a game with an anonymous person about outlandish criticism."

The church should not have to defend its beliefs, he said.

Thomas said the Ministerium had expressed support for the pastor and condemned any kind of vandalism against places of worship.

"This is a very wrong act. ... We want to encourage people to respect people of other faiths and religions," Thomas said. "Respecting doesn't mean that you have to agree."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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