By Matthew Townsend
Donald Trump’s election as president has produced a staggering variety of reactions among Americans, from praise for his statements on trade regulation to promises of sanctuary for undocumented workers in cities like San Francisco and Santa Fe.
One type of response drew quick condemnation from Trump: vandalizing public spaces with racist messages. Shortly after the election, reports of spray-painted swastikas and messages like “Heil Trump” surfaced around the country, prompting the president-elect to demand that vandals “stop it” during a Nov. 13 interview on 60 Minutes.
As TLC reported on Nov. 14, someone scrawled “Trump Nation” and “Whites Only” on a sign advertising a Spanish-language Eucharist at Our Saviour on Nov. 12. A wall in the parish’s memorial garden was defaced with the same message. In Bean Blossom, about 40 miles south of Indianapolis, vandals painted graffiti saying “Heil Trump,” and “Fag Church” accompanied a spray-painted swastika. Parishioners found the graffiti when they arrived for worship on Nov. 13.
The Rev. Robert Harvey, rector of Our Saviour, told TLC he saw an uptick in such behavior in the parish’s Hillandale neighborhood leading up to the vandalism. Hillandale is a predominantly Latino neighborhood of the Washington suburb.
Two days after the election, Harvey said, he saw two white males harassing an elderly Hispanic woman outside a neighborhood thrift shop across the street from the parish. He described the men as large and in their early 20s, adding that they were “taunting her, humiliating her, calling her a spic, telling her to go back to Mexico.”
The men left after Harvey approached them, saying he would call the police.
The next Sunday, Harvey arrived at the parish at 7 a.m. to prepare for the day’s worship services. He discovered the vandalism then. “I said, ‘Oh no, oh no, no, no,” Harvey said. “Not here.”
Harvey called the police, who arrived during the middle of his sermon in the 8 a.m. service. He paused during the sermon to ask the Rev. Francisco Valle, an assistant priest who leads the Spanish-language services, to show the vandalism to the officers.
“After the service, our bishop called me,” Harvey said. “She said, ‘Robert I’m coming to do your Spanish service today.’” The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde suggested holding a press conference.
“It spread like wildfire. By the time the Spanish service started at 1, we had close to 200 people, 210, that day,” he said. Budde celebrated and Valle preached.
A week later, on Nov. 20, Our Saviour saw massive support from the community. “Our attendance was way, way up on November 20,” Harvey said. Four Synagogues and the Muslim Community Center sent representatives to services at Our Saviour, and many neighbors came to show their love. “We felt overwhelming support from our neighbors and people of other faiths.”
One neighbor replaced the vandalized sign with a new sign saying, “Silver Spring loves and welcomes immigrants.” Harvey had no idea the neighbor was acting to replace the sign and found the message of love a pleasant surprise. Similarly, a graffiti removal company from Virginia came to remove the paint for free. The FBI has been involved, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has offered support. Crime Solvers of Montgomery County is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the suspects’ arrest.
In Bean Blossom, St. David’s has experienced similar solidarity. The Rev. Kelsey Hutto, priest-in-charge of the Brown County church, told TLC the graffiti left at her parish reflected a minority opinion in the county.
“Following this event, the amount of support that has come out from our local community has been so great,” she said. “This message that was put on the wall is not the majority message in Brown County.”
The graffiti at St. David’s was removed on Nov. 30. Hutto said parishioners decided to leave it up, for a time. “We weren’t embarrassed because we were targeted. We were targeted for the right reasons,” Hutto said.
The Episcopal Church is a place where people are loved regardless of who you are, what color you are, or who you love, she said. Hutto added that the vandalism created an opportunity to discuss the church and its role as a haven. “It was just kind of organic to leave it up and let the conversation develop.”
St. David’s planned a cleanup on Nov. 30 as a community event combined with a prayer service. About 250 people showed up — substantially more than the parish’s average Sunday attendance of 47.
“It’s probably the largest event we’ve had in our history,” Hutto said. The crowd gathered and said a small prayer before taking turns at scrubbing the graffiti. “Getting to actually scrub it off of the walls was very cathartic for people.”
Because parishioners and neighbors removed the graffiti, the event helped them translate a sense of shock or disappointment into one of empowerment. “Okay, you can’t hurt us,” Hutto said. “This does come off of the walls. Hate is not more powerful than love.”
After the graffiti was gone, volunteers sang “Amazing Grace” and moved into the sanctuary, which was left with standing room only. There, they held a prayer service of peace, unity, and reconciliation.
Both Harvey and Hutto received interview requests and notes from around the world. Hutto said she appeared on CNN twice to discuss the graffiti, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed her. “I did not expect it to explode like it did,” she said.
Harvey has been interviewed by media in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. “I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he said, adding that seminary provided little instruction on handling “international press with big-time politics.”
Our Saviour has received emails from around the world and from many denominations, and the church’s voicemail system was overwhelmed. Harvey said he discovered its maximum capacity was 47 messages.
“There were four messages of the 47 that were some of the most dreadful, evil, heinous, racist comments I’ve heard in my entire life,” he said.
Harvey said the responses have given Our Saviour a sense of call to its immigrant neighbors.
Harvey said Our Saviour is the most diverse congregation in the Diocese of Washington. Around 80 percent of parishioners are immigrants, New Americans, or first-generation Americans. While the community has expressed outrage, embarrassment, and sadness about the vandalism, most parishioners have responded with “deafening silence.” The rector said members are afraid to speak up or to talk with the media.
“They’re here in the United States trying to build a life,” he said. “It’s not easy for them. And then to have this right outside their doors. They’re afraid.
“We’re just learning now what it means to be a home for all God’s people. It’s just not about worshiping together. We really are on the front lines now of doing work for our immigrant neighbors.”
Harvey said the vandalism has made the neighborhood aware of just how many immigrants are there, both in the church and the surrounding area.
In Indiana, St. David’s has felt a similar call. Hutto said the presidential election highlighted existing divisions in America. “We do believe that we can play a role here in Brown County in healing that division,” even as a small parish in Bean Blossom.
“Our next step is on December 18. We’re going to have a community concert at the local high school in order to continue this conversation about relationship-building,” Hutto said. The goal is simple: to come to know one another.
“We need to find this common ground and build the relationship there.” If relationships are built, she said, it will be easier to seek reconciliation “when we reach greater divides.”
Hutto and Harvey extend that message to the vandals.
“We are praying for you,” Harvey said. “We love you. We want you to meet the people we worship with. We want you to understand who we are. We are Americans, too. And we love this country and we want this country to be a place where all are welcome. And our church would welcome everybody, even the perpetrators who did this. We love you, and we pray for you.”
“I would say that we forgive you,” Hutto said. “That we don’t necessarily understand why, but you’re always welcome at St. David’s. We forgive you.”