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Police investigate swastika painted on Springfield church

Published: May. 27, 2022 at 2:04 PM CDT|Updated: May. 27, 2022 at 4:54 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — A black swastika was painted on the outside wall of an historically Black church in Springfield. Police are investigating the vandalism as a hate crime.

Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church in Springfield reported that the swastika was spray-painted on the building on May 18 or 19. The NAACP and the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the vandalism. A county parks crew removed the swastika.

During a news conference with the NAACP at the church Friday, the pastor, the Rev. Tracy Wolff, said her congregation was particularly disturbed that their church was targeted given recent violent hate crimes nationwide, including the deadly mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, that investigators have said was racially motivated.

“I want to be clear that this is not simply tagging. This is not graffiti. This is not vandalism,” Wolff said. “This was a hate crime, and it is unacceptable.”

Pitts Chapel is Springfield’s oldest historically Black church, Wolff said. It was founded in 1847 by a group of enslaved Africans.

“Though we are historically Black, on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m., we’re becoming one of the most diverse places in town. I don’t think a lot of people know that,” she said.

Police have not identified a suspect and are asking witnesses or anyone with information to contact police. In the meantime, Wolff said, the church is beefing up security.

All this comes as the current church, built in 1911, is undergoing a major renovation with more than $250,000 raised to restore the historic building. The renovation started in 2019 and even though the pandemic and supply chain shortages have slowed down the work, Wolff said the church was hoping to have the project completed by the 175th anniversary of the founding in October.

“That Pitts Chapel was founded by a group of slaves in itself is an act of resistance,” Wolff pointed out. “To go to your enslaver and say, ‘We want a church!’ is amazing. We’ve come a long way and been through a lot.”

So when they saw their sacred house of worship desecrated by a swastika?

“The whole purpose of putting that particular symbol on anything is to terrorize people,” Wolff answered. “So our immediate response was anger, fear, all the mixture of emotions. But it then changed to resilience.”

“This is not the first time that something like this has taken place in our community,” said Kai Sutton, Springfield’s NAACP President. “It happened a few years ago at the front door of a home of a single mom and her two children. It happened last year at the Bartley-Decatur Neighborhood Center. And now here we are again.”

“How many more things need to happen in our community for all of us to be fed up with it?” Wolff added.

Police Chief Paul Williams, who attended Friday’s event, said the investigation is ongoing and asked for the public’s help.

“That’s the one thing we’re lacking,” he told the crowd. “Witnesses and additional information that might help us solve this crime. You can help us by calling 417-864-1810 or go through Crime Stoppers.”

Both Wolff and Sutton encouraged the public to show their support by not taking an apathetic approach to racism.

“We can’t go at this alone,” Sutton said. “No matter what obstacles we face, we stand together and our community is strong. When we go through something traumatic together like this, not just in Springfield, but as a nation we are all in pain. But we’re going to overcome and keep calling it out.”

“Honestly, the more white people the better,” Wolff said of the need for diversity in the showing of support. “Because this is a predominantly white community. When you show up it says, ‘We’re serious. We don’t want this anymore.’”

And as to what they’d like to say to the criminals?

“It doesn’t matter what was in that person’s heart,” Wolff answered. “You don’t scare us. We are Pitts Chapel and we ain’t going nowhere!”

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