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Church vandalism gets city’s attention

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (BP)–Vandals did more than $63,000 damage to the newly renamed Orchard Mesa Baptist Church, but they did more good than bad, interim pastor Robert Babcox said of the late-night rampage.

Because of the news media’s coverage, everyone in Grand Junction, Colo., knows of Orchard Mesa Baptist Church, Babcox said.

“The community has just come alive with this,” said Babcox, who works bivocationally as a Sears operations manager. “I was praying for ways to reach out to the community, how to do it so God would get the glory. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t come up with a better plan than what God did.

“Right now we’re in recovery mode,” the pastor continued. “We’re operating at 90 percent. I’m going to allow God to do His work, and I’m going to do mine, which is His bidding.”

Known for its first 54 years as Trinity Baptist, the church that once had about 120 people each Sunday for worship had dwindled to 18, the first Sunday after Babcox was called as its interim in April. To inject new life and to reflect the church’s fresh start, he suggested a new name.

On May 13, the members unanimously embraced Orchard Mesa Baptist Church as the new name, reflecting the name of the surrounding community. One week later, vandals broke a window and for two hours spread destruction in the church’s interior.

They smashed computer monitors, television sets and the church’s new copier with baseball bats grabbed from the youth department. They pulled over book shelves and flung books about.

They kicked in the doors of five freezers and refrigerators used by the church’s food ministry, and used the long-handled guillotine-like blade of a paper cutter like a hatchet to further destroy them.

They poured canned goods onto dry goods, stirred the mess and wasted about $5,000 in food designated for the needy.

Finding spray bottles of paint, they wrote in the worship center and elsewhere in the church what the pastor said were “ugly words.”

They opened each of Trinity’s six full-size fire extinguishers and sprayed the contents throughout the church. Then they burned the church flag and U.S. flag and set a pew afire that they expected would enflame the church’s 54-year-old wooden structure within minutes.

But the fire retardant kept the fire from spreading, and smoke from the pew’s upholstered cushion wafted upward and out the building through the steeple, where it was seen about 2 a.m. by a man driving by. He called 911; police and fire personnel were on the scene within minutes.

“They wouldn’t let us inside until 1 p.m. the following day,” Babcox said. “My wife was absolutely in tears with what she saw. I’ve seen worse — I’m a retired Navy veteran — but not in my own country.”

Since it was a church, federal investigators arrived the next morning, but because of specific statutes that would have to be proven, the vandalism was not written up as a hate crime, said Kate Porras, spokesperson for the Grand Junction Police Department.

“The writing seemed to be more of an afterthought,” Porras said. “They found the means to do the writing, but their true intent was not to target the people in the church.”

The pastor agreed, saying that the vandalism reflected Satan’s interest in the church.

“This was nothing but sheer anger and hurt,” Babcox said. “Satan’s running scared. I was just voted in 31 days previously. God put his man here; the church is growing — it had already doubled in attendance before the vandalism -– and Satan is scared.”

Churches and individuals throughout Grand Junction and the 21 congregations that comprise Grand Valley Baptist Association reached out to help repair the church and its food ministry, which last month assisted 257 families, according to a report in Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel newspaper.

“I believe God is establishing this church for His glory,” said Kent Shirley, associational director of missions. “The pastor has a passion for reaching people in that area of town. They’re sharing the Gospel through the food ministry, and some people are coming to the church as a result of that.”

Orchard Mesa Baptist responded to all the help they’ve received with a Sunday afternoon “thank you” barbecue for the community two weeks after the vandalism.

With about $6,000 in donations from the community and insurance payments, the church is within $15,000 of what is needed to repair its damage.

Two 17-year-old boys were arrested a day after the church’s vandalism, which was one in a series of 16 or more incidents in what the police department called their crime spree. They are facing charges on more than 70 felonies and misdemeanors.

“I’m loving these people to the Lord,” Babcox said in a Daily Sentinel article. “Something made them hate God and their country, and we need to bring them back into the fold.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message.