Middlebrook church set fire; anti-gay messages found
National church recently approved of same-sex marriage
By Jonathan D. Jones/staff
Mike Tripp/The News Leader
Lt. Tim McCray and John Pilson of the Middlebrook Volunteer Fire Department exit a side door not far from a graffiti that reads "GAYS LOVERS" at St. John's Reformed United Church of Christ near Middlebrook on Saturday morning. Anti-gay graffiti and a suspicious fire were at the church that morning.
MIDDLEBROOK "” A small fire was set in St. John's Reformed United Church of Christ this morning and anti-gay graffiti was painted on the side of the building.
The outside of the church was vandalized with anti-gay messages and a declaration that United Church of Christ members were sinners. The graffiti's message appeared to be a reference to the national church's decision earlier this week to endorse gay and lesbian marriages.
The United Church of Christ's General Synod voted Monday in Atlanta to approve a resolution that is accepting of gay and lesbian marriages but is not binding on local congregations.
A member of the congregation discovered the graffiti Saturday morning when he stopped by to mow the grass. He went into the church building, and when he opened the sanctuary there was still a small fire.
The Middlebrook Volunteer Fire Company responded, and it only took a few minutes to put the fire out, Lt. Tim McCray said. He deferred any questions about the cause of the fire to police investigators.
A Virginia State Police fire investigator was on the scene Saturday afternoon, but declined to comment. The Augusta County Sheriff's Office initially responded and a deputy was there assisting.
Firefighters removed a stack of burned hymnals. Police cordoned off the sanctuary, but through the windows a portion of the choir loft and a pew that had been damaged by the fire were visible.
Smoke damage will keep the congregation out of its sanctuary, but members still intend to have a 225th anniversary celebration tomorrow. They'll move it onto the front lawn and use tents, Pastor Darcas Lohr said.
It's the second time in the last 30 years that St. John's has caught fire. Four people, three juveniles and a Staunton man in his 20s, were arrested on arson charges after an Aug. 1, 1978, blaze destroyed most of the church's sanctuary.