Vandals desecrate Smyrna church’s property — again

SMYRNA — This was certainly no random pre-Halloween prank, church members believe.

Swastikas and vulgarities spray-painted in black on headstones and signs throughout the Foreman-Massey Cemetery sometime last weekend were racially motivated, according to Byrd’s African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders.

While the Rev. Dawn S. Christopher and head trustee Bernard H. Williams Sr. say authorities are doing their due diligence investigating the matter, they know a similar matter in the back entrance of the church’s parking lot in Clayton remains unsolved after almost 18 months.

There were no surveillance cameras to capture video of the most recent vandalism against the AME Church, and no lighting to illuminate the rural 2.5-acre grounds that has up to 200 burial sites. The site is next to Vandyke Greenspring Road just outside Smyrna.

“It’s frustrating and we’re angered that they would desecrate this ground that is sacred to us,” Mr. Williams said.

“We take pride in this and maintain it well.

“To be targeted like this just isn’t right and shows a whole lot of hate coming from somebody somewhere.”

This week, the Rev. Christopher said she spent an ample amount of time communicating with an insurance company, trying to determine how much of the damage would be covered by the church’s policy.

Three headstones were affected, including that of the former presiding elder, the Rev. A.J. Foreman. He was instrumental in bringing Massey AME Church under the direction of Byrd’s congregation about 20 to 25 years ago, leaders said.

One large headstone was broken off at its base, which Byrd’s leadership said indicated more than one person must have been involved, and all were determined to have significant damage. Also broken open was the grave covering for a wooden casket that was made visible after it was smashed.

The recent misdeeds have the approximately 55 active members of the congregation weighing their own emotions when it comes to keeping in touch with their faith while at the same time knowing that unknown perpetrators remain unpunished for their crimes.

“We have a forgiving spirit,” Mr. Williams said. “We would definitely not be happy with the person or persons responsible, but by the same token we still have to love and forgive because we know that at times people do things in their lives that they aren’t proud of and later regret.

“But at the same time people have to be held accountable for their actions …”

‘It’s racial’

Added Mr. Williams, “We’ve certainly been down this path before. They’re targeting our church, or denomination. It’s racial.”

The head trustee said he believed this was a continuation against AME sites, mentioning the St. James AME church in Frederica allegedly burglarized late last year during a string of arsons at three other area churches.

Ms. Christopher took the call Sunday morning from a concerned Smyrna citizen reporting something had happened at the cemetery.

“I expected there to be some minor damage, but could not have imagined what actually went on,” she said.

Earlier this week, Delaware State Police confirmed it is investigating the matter as a possible hate crime. Tips regarding the incident can be sent to Delaware Crime Stoppers at (800) TIP-3333 or www.tipsubmit.com.

Ms. Christopher’s husband Calvin is chairperson of the governor-appointed State of Delaware Human Relations Commission. He’s waiting to hear from police if the incident falls under the definition of a hate crime before deciding how to proceed.

“This clearly is not an act of love and in my estimation is clearly something that is a hateful act,” he said.

“There are a lot of other cemeteries in the near vicinity that whoever did this drove past to get here.

“Our mission (on the Human Relations Commission) is to promote amicable relations between all residents in the state, and this does not help.”

Church members agreed the vandalism did not indicate a hostile community surrounding the cemetery grounds, and in fact local citizens had been quick to reach out offering their support and expressing outrage regarding the incident.

“I certainly don’t think the actions of a few sick persons who perpetrated this defines the community, the area, or the state,” Mr. Christopher said.

“What this incident does is to heighten the awareness that this stuff still happens and we still have a lot of work to do.”

Soon after the desecration, Mr. Williams said a can of professional strength “Goof Off” graffiti remover was apparently left at the cemetery by an unknown person.

Agreeing with Mr. Christopher, he said, “This certainly does not define these neighbors, this community.”

Referring to Byrd’s leadership, Ms. Christopher said, “We want to make the public aware that we’re doing everything we can to make sure their loved ones are being taken care of.

“It’s disheartening enough to see loved ones at a ceremony, and they don’t need to see (the vandalism) and they don’t need to worry about protecting what is theirs.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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