Riceville church puts aside anger for forgiveness after boys plead guilty to vandalism

Riceville church puts aside anger for forgiveness after boys plead guilty to vandalism

RICEVILLE, Tenn. -- Two 16-year-old boys on a summer night: What compels them to break into a pretty white church on a country road to paint hateful language and symbols on the walls?

“It made me sick to my stomach -- and angry,” says the Rev. John Crabtree, pastor at Jones Chapel United Methodist Church, referring to the vandalism. “These are not the kind of thoughts that cross the average person’s mind.”

Then he saw the accused boys at court. “They looked remarkably normal,” Crabtree said.

The destruction wasn’t something any new pastor would welcome. Crabtree and family arrived on June 22; the vandalism occurred on July 21. Vacation Bible School was scheduled to begin July 31.

However, within a week after the discouraging discovery, the boys who had committed the acts were working side-by-side with church members who were working on forgiveness.

“I am unabashedly glad that they’re going to be held accountable for their actions,” the pastor said of the teens. “And I am impressed with our church members who, on the day after the break-in, were already talking about forgiving and moving on and how God could bring something good out of this.”

“Young kids today have a lot of imagination,” said church member Dean Swartzell, referring to the graphic graffiti. “But everyone seems to be satisfied with what [the accused] are going to do for the church, and hopefully, it will do something good for them.”

The vandalism happened on a Thursday night when the pair apparently broke into a ground-floor window. They used red and silver spray paint on the Sunday school and kitchen walls, the outside front of the building, and the church van.

The destruction was discovered by church members at daybreak the next morning. Crabtree received a “frantic call” and was at the church by 7:30 a.m. The McMinn County sheriff ‘s department arrived by 8 a.m.

Within hours, a caller had tipped off the police and the suspects were in custody. Media from Chattanooga, Athens, and Knoxville flocked to cover the story. (See WATE.com story.)

By Monday morning, the accused were already in the McMinn County courthouse, pleading guilty.

The boys, who lived near the church, had to apologize in court; write a letter of apology; undergo psychological evaluations and two years of supervised probation; pay restitution and court costs; and serve a total 500 hours of community service.

“The judge strongly advised them to serve their hours at Jones Chapel,” Crabtree said.

Less than one week after the incident, Jones Chapel held a Wednesday workday to clean up and paint over the graffiti. Fifty people showed up, including members of the Chattanooga Freethought Association, an atheist group, and representatives of six United Methodist churches in the Cleveland District: Calhoun, Charleston, Tasso, Ten Mile, Ooltewah, and Jones Chapel’s sister church, Wesleyanna.

Also attending were the two accused teens.

“I just handed them off to a church member,” Crabtree said. “Everybody worked together. We chose not to single them out, but they were able to hear the conversations about forgiveness as well as the comments about what had been done.”

The boys were quiet on that day and on subsequent workdays, Crabtree said, while their parents remain “mortified” by their children’s actions, the pastor said.

One boy attends a nearby church of another denomination. The other family doesn’t attend church. Crabtree has already invited his family to Jones Chapel. (See photo of church.)

No one knows why they did it. “It just looks like they painted the worst things they could think of,” Crabtree said.  “Our prayer is that we might have a chance to win a family for Christ.”

The worst of the damage was repaired in time for Vacation Bible School, which kicked off earlier this week with 30 children. The congregation of 50 pulled together and has seen evidence that God really is bringing good from the experience.

“The church got to see that they were valued,” the pastor said. “They know that people care about the building, but more than that, they care about what it means to be in a community of faith. They feel a stronger connection to the community and a stronger sense of purpose.”