Less than a week before Dan Roschke started his call as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran in Fairfax, Va., the church was vandalized in a June 26 hate crime. He arrived to find racial slurs, vulgar words, swastikas and “You’re all going to hell” painted on the sanctuary walls; glass candleholders smashed; altar paraments shredded; windows broken; the sound system cut; and every pew cushion slashed from end to end.
“It was awful,” said Roschke, who moved his family from San Diego for his new call. “Literally, this was the first time I walked into the building with my wife, 9-year-old and 12-year-old kids, and in-laws. We’d had a nice breakfast and said, ‘Hey, let’s look at the church.’ My son said there was a bad word written on a whiteboard. I said, ‘That’s not a whiteboard; it’s the wall.’ ”
Roschke also found a congregation in shock and members in tears. The church, which is used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other community groups, as well as Korean and Vietnamese congregations, had been broken into seven times since May but nothing to this extent. In one incident, a young male member who was at church at the time of the break-in was hit over the head with a fire extinguisher.
Kristin Haynes, Bethlehem council president, said the congregation was shaken, especially since they were dealing with other things, such as having interim pastors and calling a pastor. “It’s really sad in this time and age that we’re dealing with this. There’s still a lot of hate out there,” she said.
While the congregation quickly cleaned up the mess and painted the walls, fixing the pew cushions is a larger issue. Replacement is estimated at $25,000, Roschke said. Even with the cushion company donating the cost of the church’s deductible, reupholstering is labor-intensive and will take time.
Roschke said some members expressed concern that sitting on slashed cushions reminded them of the hatred, so the congregation collected quilts to cover the cushions until they could be repaired.
“Everyone was contacting us,” he said. “When people called, we thanked them for their concern and said, ‘Yes, we could use quilts and blankets.’ ”
And they kept coming—from other churches and the community. Even a U.S. congressman donated some. “Now every inch of the church is covered with upward of 100 [quilts],” Roschke said. “Beautiful ones are still coming in.”
Roschke referenced a tattered quilt received from a church in Dearborn, Mich., that was particularly poignant. “The tattered quilt came with a note about how we’re all imperfect and only God is perfect—a powerful image,” he said.
“Now every inch of the church is covered with upward of 100 [quilts]. Beautiful ones are still coming in.”
Vandalism isn’t new in this area of town and has gotten a lot of media attention. Last year Bethlehem’s next-door neighbor, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia (JCC), was splattered with swastikas and slurs. A nearby Congregational church was also damaged.
“The JCC came running to help us right away,” Roschke said. If there’s any bright spot, he added, it’s in such community response. “I’m getting to know community people that it would’ve taken a year to get to know,” he said.
In the past few months, the community has held a vigil, discussed racism, formed new partnerships and re-evaluated security measures. The Bethlehem council installed a security system with 14 interior cameras and door alarms.
On July 25, the community held a “United Against Hate” solidarity event. Leaders from the JCC and Muslim community spoke and prayed, and participants sang “We Shall Overcome.”
“Everyone is welcome in this place, but hatred, violence and bigotry aren’t,” Roschke said.
Meanwhile, Bethlehem is moving forward. People are starting to return to worship, where about 80 usually attend on a Sunday. “Some of our families who had young children had a hard time coming to church; they couldn’t explain this to their kids,” Roschke said.
Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area also began renting office space at the church in September for its refugee and immigration program. “I think it’s divine intervention,” said Christine Connell, its chief executive officer. “Individuals in the community are racially targeting Bethlehem, and now refugee and immigration services are coming in. This might seem ironic, but I think it simply reinforces the message that everyone is welcome here.”
Roschke added: “It’s a wonderful part of the story. In spite of all this fear and terror, as we physically try to secure the space, we’ve opened our doors up even more to people who are on the margins and feel the most fear.”