The hymnals’ pages were twisted, wrinkled and blackened by fire. They lay on the sanctuary floor in Longview’s historic First Christian Church amid condom and candy wrappers and the remnants of offering baskets that had been torn to shreds.
The carpet near a pew was burnt, and the sanctuary reeked of smoke. Candles were scattered across the floor. The f-word was carved into a wooden piano upon which a congregation member had carefully arranged a Christmas nativity scene.
Eric Atcheson, the church’s 26-year-old pastor, believes it’s his job as a Christian minister to forgive.
But how do you forgive this?
Somebody — probably more than one person by the looks of the damage — broke into the brick church at the corner of 20th Avenue and Kessler Boulevard sometime between Sunday night and Tuesday morning and unleashed a frenzy of random destruction.
Among the damage: A small fire was set in a bathroom and a toilet clogged and overflowed. Garbage was strewn throughout several rooms. Music stands in the front of the sanctuary were tossed askew.
Atcheson, who has been pastor of the 80-member congregation for just more than a year, discovered the damage Tuesday morning after returning from a long holiday weekend.
“I was just kind of stunned,” he said. “The jaw hits the floor. I stood there for probably two minutes before I started calling people.”
Atcheson and his congregation’s members said they can’t make sense of the vandalism. Nothing appears to be missing — except for a few Bibles that Atcheson believes were burned up in the bathroom. Was this an attack on the church? Was it the act of thoughtless or cruel teenagers?
“I’m struggling with this,” said Atcheson, a native of Kansas City, Mo., who is leading
a church for the first time since graduating from seminary last year. “This is something of God’s that’s been taken from him. ... If I’m angry on my own behalf that doesn’t do anyone any good — even though I really want to be.”
To the people who tried to ruin the church, Atcheson had this message: “If you want to be here, come and see us on Sunday morning — come see the people you’re hurting. ... It isn’t just books and carpet. You’re destroying a ministry.
“It’s not the hymnals. It’s what’s in the hymnals. It’s the music that people here love.”
By Tuesday afternoon, a plastic folding table had been erected in front of the church’s pews. It was covered with random objects — a wreath, a few cans of whipping cream from the kitchen — each coated with the dark powder that detectives had used to dust them for fingerprints.
Longview police Capt. Robert Huhta said investigators haven’t yet identified any suspects, but the investigation will continue. No damage estimate was available.
The First Christian Church, across the street from Lake Sacajawea, is one of the city’s oldest churches. It was founded in 1928, and the sanctuary was built three years later, Atcheson said. Many of the congregation’s families have been here since the city’s earliest days. R.A. Long, the founder of Longview, spoke from the pulpit at the first service in 1931. The main sanctuary has a lovely vaulted timber ceiling based on traditional English churches of the 13th century, and the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In recent years, Atcheson said, the church has tried to attract younger families. What has been constant, he said, is the congregation’s “maternal” feel. Members bring sandwiches, vegetable trays and cookies for a light lunch that follows each Sunday service. Most of the congregation attends the after-service gathering, he said.
Brenda Strite, who has attended First Christian for more than a decade, said she was overcome with anger when she learned her church had been trashed.
“I was pissed,” said Strite, 48, of Longview. “Angry. Beside myself. I just couldn’t believe that someone would do that to a church, a house of worship.”
Justin Wheeler, a congregation member and the church’s janitor, said he has found a refuge in the church.
“I’m an addict and alcoholic in recovery. They’re very accepting of that,” said Wheeler, 24, of Longview. “They take good care of me.”
He said he was “devastated” when he learned of the damage.
Wheeler said he was preparing to help clean up. Several ministers in the community also had offered to help.
“I think the best thing we can do is have this place cleaned up for Sunday,” said Atcheson, who is determined that the destruction won’t interfere with the church’s Christmas celebrations.
“Yes, we’re upset and we’re hurt. But that’s no excuse to not offer the Christmas story to the people who come to hear it,” he said. “There’s some grace there. I’m sure of it. As much as it’s taught me the bad of human nature, it’s taught me the good as well.”