Graffiti bearing Nazi symbolism, the word “Satan” and the name of the president of the United States was found Tuesday morning at a predominantly black Baptist church in McLennan County that is home to about 30 members.
The words and swastika, surrounded by a six-point star and circle, were scribbled in ketchup and mustard at Willow Grove Baptist Church’s fellowship hall where members hold Bible studies, Sunday classes and community events.
The church near Speegleville was founded in 1871 by former slaves A.J. Crawford and Buck Manning and named after the willow branches at the site, which once included a school.
“Offer them love and forgiveness,” Pastor Kenneth McNeil said of how Crawford and Manning would respond to the perpetrators. “As I read some of their records, I think they would offer forgiveness.”
McNeil, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, approached the church at 11 a.m. Tuesday and saw damaged doors, one with a removed deadbolt. Bleach was strewn over a choir room and hallway, and the secretary’s office was ransacked. Nothing was stolen and the sanctuary remained untouched, but Willow Grove now faces $3,000 in damages.
The McLennan County Sherriff’s Office is investigating the incident as an act of vandalism, Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. Detectives have no information about the number of suspects or possible motivation.
“It is very shameful when anyone disgraces a church like that,” McNamara said. “It is just a disgrace and really sad.”
After calling authorities, McNeil entered the fellowship hall and saw a swastika, the last name of President Donald Trump and the word “Satan” drawn on the floor. The hall with a broken window smelled of condiments on Friday.
Longtime member Charlesetta Farrish said her first reaction to the news was that of shock. Farrish’s great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandchildren have attended Willow Grove.
“We hear stuff like this on the news,” said Farrish, who sings in the choir and teaches Sunday school. “I’m just thankful that they didn’t burn it down or anything like that. Even after I heard what they had done, I just feel like we have to pray for these people, for the things that they’ve done, and forgive them. I just ask God to have mercy on them. They have not a clue what they’re doing.”
World War II hero and Waco native Doris Miller also attended the church, Farrish said, citing conversations she has had with older members.
Located a few miles away from another Baptist church and a Methodist church, Willow Grove has close ties with the surrounding community and hosts an annual Thanksgiving service with them. More McLennan County churches have offered support, to the overwhelming thanks of the church members.
“I see where people are willing to come and help and donate, and it’s just wonderful,” Farrish said. “What (the perpetrator) meant for our bad, it’s turned into our good.”
The incident is yet another to add to the database of threats against historically African-American churches, said Jerry Park, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University who studies racial and religious prejudice.
The endorsements of Nazism, Satan and Trump could indicate the work of a teenager without historical knowledge of those topics, he said, though the injection of terror was a clear goal of the perpetrator.
“Swastikas represent the Aryan nationalism or white nationalism that the Nazi party endorsed around World War II,” Park said. “For them, that racial purity not only extended to Jews, who were the primary target, but also to anyone who is not Aryan. That would include African-Americans. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is some cooptation of that ideology with anyone who is a white nationalist here in the United States in McLennan County.”
McNeil said he does not talk politics from the pulpit, nor does the congregation. In May, Trump signed an executive order to allow clergy members to endorse candidates. Polling indicates most Americans believe bringing politics into churches is not smart, The New York Times reported.
White nationalists clinging to Trump represents a classical notion of a charismatic leader who attracts unrelenting support of specific groups, Park said.
“There’s this complicated interplay,” he said. “Some would say these people of prominence shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of individuals for whom they have no connection with and they never intended their message for any of that.
“On the other hand, you can also say entire groups are claiming tacit support from these kinds of figures. When that happens, I’d say you’re not just talking about an individual, isolated incident, but now you’re talking about why it is that entire communities are finding this person’s rhetoric compelling.”
Texas came in third on a Southern Poverty Law Center list of states with the most post-election hate incidents.
McNeil said he and the congregation do not feel fear after the incident, which brought on thoughts of the 2015 shooting by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine people, including the senior pastor and a state senator.
“We are determined not to allow that fear and that hate to win,” McNeil said. “We keep going and keep loving on folks and keep offering that forgiveness and that hope that people are looking for.
“One piece of Scripture I play over in my mind is in chapter eight of Romans. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Somehow, some way, some good is going to come out of this.”