March 01, 2009

Trouble at Old Saint John’s

Built by the British for their slaves in 1765, Old St. John's Church
in the Dixiana section of South Carolina is probably the oldest church
in the state. Destroyed once by fire more than a hundred years ago and
later by a flood, Old St. John's of modern times is the third structure
at the same site.
During the middle 1980s, a group of white and black citizens from the
area worked together for nearly a year restoring the historic church so
the 20 to 30 members could attend worship services there.
For reasons known only to those who enjoy destroying precious things,
the old church became the target of nearly 100 thieves, vandals and
arsonists, especially around Halloween.
Old St. John's became a major target for young people from miles
around. Vandals spray-paint church walls with satanic symbols, overturn
headstones and committed other acts of desecration.
News reports about vandalism at Old St. John's seemed to stimulate
more attacks. In the late 1980s the local sheriff, weary of these
desecrations on the historic church, assigned a squad of detectives to a
stakeout during Halloween.
During the first stakeout, deputies hauled in 33 people for burglary,
trespassing, vandalism and arson. The vandals ranged in age from 16 to
33. They came from far and near. Most admitted to a fascination with the
idea of an "old black slave church."
One teen who spray-painted parts of the sanctuary later stood before
the Old Saint John's congregation and apologized for his misdeeds. The
apology was not the boy's idea, but the order of a Family Court Judge.
Then in 1995 Old St. John's was totally destroyed by fire along with
many black churches throughout the South during an epidemic of church
arsons. It took a while, but eventually three teens from a neighboring
community were charged with arson in the Old St. John's Church case. The
FBI labeled this case as a "hate crime."

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