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Palo Alto responds to defacement of Black church

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In the wake of last week’s defacement of the historic University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto with anti-religious messages, local police have increased patrols of religious buildings, and the historically Black church has hosted a special Solidarity Sunday service to address the incident.

Shortly after midnight on Dec. 28, 2019, a parishioner of the University AME Zion Church witnessed a man spray-painting graffiti inside the church’s interior courtyard. The witness waited about three hours to wake the pastor, Pastor Kaloma Smith, and later get church leaders on the scene to survey the damage and call the police.

Scrawled in graffiti-style white paint across two bathroom doors and walls in the breezeway, the messages included “F— God,” “Why Jesus Why,” and “God Causes Pain.” After reaching out to the five other churches on his stretch of Middlefield Road, including Presbyterian and Latter-day Saint congregations, Smith said that University AME Zion church appears to have been the only one hit.

The University AME Zion Church has existed for 101 years in Palo Alto as a member church of one of the nation’s oldest and most historically prominent Black denominations, along the way serving generations of African American faculty, staff and students at Stanford. Smith said, though, this is the first time in the church’s history it had been targeted in this way.

“The incident is alarming for a few reasons,” he said. “First of all, I think people instantly lock in on race.”

“But I want to step back and talk about how spaces are sacred for people,” he added. “What this space is for. Having a space that we built that is sacred and has never been violated before — it’s an incredible violation. To then place anti-Christian slurs against our faith — that hits us in a very different way.”

In the wake of the recent church shooting in Dallas and anti-Semitic attacks in New York City, the Palo Alto Police Department has taken the incident seriously, stepping up patrols of churches and temples. 

“We’ve collected two pieces of evidence and that’s [sic] currently being analyzed right now,” said Palo Alto Police Department Sergeant Craig Lee with KTVU. Because the property damage exceeded $400, the case could likely be treated as a felony.

Bill Larson, the Stanford University Department of Public Safety spokesman, told The Daily that the university’s patrol division would also be aware of the incident. 

The University AME Zion Church also reacted to the graffiti, hosting a Solidarity Sunday event that was recorded to its Facebook page. Faith leaders from different faiths denounced violence against houses of worship and AME Zion Church Bishop Staccato Powell presented a written message emphasizing the church’s historical resilience and the resilience of the sacred against earthly anti-religious threats.

“Our sensibilities were truly shaken when we were awaken to discover the desecration of this University African Methodist Zion church, the oldest African American church in Palo Alto, California,” Powell said. “Our sense of righteous indignation is akin to that of our Savior who entered the Temple and discovered those who had converted it into a commercial market.”

At the end of the message the bishop repeated the phrase, “We shall not be moved.”

Smith explained to The Daily that the phrase was an alternative to the fight-or-flight that usually accompanies threatening situations — Smith doesn’t think “either one is really positive.” 

“But I think there is the idea of standing your ground and standing for your values and moving from a position of love and hope instead of degrading and cutting people down,” he added. “The whole concept of ‘we shall not be moved’ is, I’m not going to attack you like you attack me — I’m just going to stand for my values and stay right where we are.”

Smith said he was supportive of the PAPD’s ongoing patrol work and investigations, aimed at finding the culprit and preventing copycat incidents.

The suspect is described as a thin 5’11” Caucasian male in his mid-thirties or forties with blond streaks in his hair and wearing a red, puffy jacket. In addition to committing the vandalism, the suspect is believed to have ransacked a storage bin at the church. The PAPD released a statement on Nextdoor encouraging Palo Alto residents with information on past or potential crimes against houses of worship to call 650-329-2413.

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’ stanford.edu

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Cooper Veit '22 is a local news writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck.