Vandals destroy Wheaton church's Black, gay solidarity signs
For five years, Hope Presbyterian Church in Wheaton has been home to two congregations -- one white, one Black.
Worshippers have shared the building off Wiesbrook Road, Palm Sunday brunches, Sunday communions and Christmas season festivities. Now, they are sharing the pain of racism.
The progressive, white Hope Church's attempts to show solidarity with its African American brethren from Bethel New Life Church through "Black Lives Matter" signs have been met with repeated acts of vandalism that church leaders view as hate crimes.
A "Black Lives Matter" sign put up after the Aug. 23 Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake was stolen. A replacement sign posted Sunday affirming "Black Dignity" was "chopped up," while another rainbow sign supporting gays was burned to the ground Monday, Hope Presbyterian Pastor Jay Moses said.
"My community is heartbroken and shocked," Moses said of his 128-member congregation that has been a part of Wheaton for 50 years. "They are shocked that anybody in Wheaton would do this ... and they are heartbroken because they realize what it signifies. It really felt like the burning cross. It felt like the (Ku Klux) Klan had been there almost."
A similar case of "Black Lives Matter" signs being defaced occurred in August at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Arlington Heights.
Moses views this latest act of vandalism as an escalation from a previous graffiti incident on a solidarity board installed after the May 25 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd so community members could write supportive messages. At the time, another Black Lives Matter sign also was stolen.
"What we are really trying to do is witness," Moses said. "We are choosing to be in solidarity with the African American community and we are having to walk their steps right now. It's an enlightening journey. We have stepped out as a white church in support of Black dignity. And now in some ways, we are being treated like what African Americans have been treated."
Since March, members of both congregations have been worshipping virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic, with only leaders tending to the church property.
Known for its numerous churches, Wheaton is predominantly white (85%), conservative and Republican. Blacks constitute 4%, and Latinos and Asians each make up 6% of its population.
Bethel New Life's 50 members hail from other suburbs, including Bolingbrook, St. Charles and Willowbrook, said pastor R. Keith Beauchamp, himself of Streamwood.
"What is the community going to be like when we arrive back here?" Beauchamp said Tuesday from Hope Church. "We want to live among and share, but it's sometimes awkward. We know there's issues. We know there are challenges. We still have to love unconditionally. We still have to forgive, and we have to move forward."
Beauchamp fears for his congregation, and for the safety of Hope Presbyterian's members who took a bold step posting the signs.
"It was courageous, but it doesn't mean that people always appreciate your courage," he said. "We celebrated (together) the moment when it was put up and cried when it was torn down because we know what that means."
Leaders of both churches aim to come together in the coming days to figure out next steps and organize a vigil in support of the Black community.
"It can be a transformative moment of self-understanding, of who we really are," Moses said. "It's kind of a mirror. Our mirror got shattered."