A sign outside Maryland Presbyterian Church declaring love for LGBTQ people, immigrants and Muslims was vandalized with hate speech sometime Sunday night, according to its pastor and a police report.
When the vandalism was discovered, the church’s staff took the damaged sign down, said its pastor, the Rev. David Norse Thomas. They had a replacement at the ready, put it up, pointed lights at it so it could be seen from the road, then called the police.
“For me, it’s really important that someone, and their hatred and bigotry, doesn’t get to tell anyone where they get to feel safe or where they get to feel loved,” Norse Thomas said. “It’s important to me to put the signs back up and light them up to show resiliency, but also that the vandal doesn’t win. Their message of hate doesn’t win.”
Police spokeswoman Officer Jen Peach said the incident is being investigated as a destruction of property and bias incident.
To show support for those communities, Norse Thomas is organizing “Hate Has No Home Here,” a unity rally, scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 17 at the church at 1105 Providence Road.
“Come join us to sing and respond to hate with love and light,” a poster advertising the event says. “All people of good will are welcome.”
The sign that was vandalized had two sides: One said “We celebrate our LGBTQ+ friends and family,” and the other said, “We love our Muslim and immigrant neighbors.” Norse Thomas said the church has received messages from people of those communities who say seeing the signs “really means a lot when I’m driving by.”
The vandal crossed out and altered text on both sides of the sign to express homophobic and anti-Islamic views.
As an openly gay pastor of a progressive church, Norse Thomas said the incident made him sad, but not surprised. The signs, which were purchased in 2016, have been stolen before, he said. And in October, according to a police report, someone called the church expressing views about homosexuality that in an interview Norse Thomas called “hurtful and hateful.”
“It’s sad to … be reminded that this is sort of the world and the country we live in right now,” Norse Thomas said.
Norse Thomas said the event Sunday will feature song, poetry and speeches from him, a representative from the Center for American Islamic Relations and possibly a representative from the Baltimore County executive’s office.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in an interview that he called Norse Thomas after the incident.
“I reached out personally because those types of incidents have absolutely no place in Baltimore County and beyond,” Olszewski said, adding later: “Baltimore County stands with the church, stands with those affected, and we stand in solidarity. We’re there for them and for the community members.”
Norse Thomas said police offered to do a security walk-through at the church to identify places that could be made safer. But he said he was surprised to learn that the county police were unable to assign extra officers to keep an eye on the church, even in the interim while the church, which has about 75 members, establishes whether to hire private security.
“That doesn’t feel right, and was surprising, because so much else offered is really well thought out and very supportive and very helpful,” Norse Thomas said.
Olszewski said he discussed with Norse Thomas ways the county can better support victims of hate crimes. His spokesman, T.J. Smith, said any future changes will be determined in an “ongoing dialogue,” but that the first step is to actively condemn such incidents.
Norse Thomas said the church will be looking at security options and weighing the desire for security with its mission to be welcoming, especially to people with complicated relationships with law enforcement, like immigrants and people of color. He said the church is accepting donations to address security needs.
The process will be a balance between making sure his congregants feel safe and maintaining the church’s message of acceptance, he said.
“Part of the role of being a pastor is being a shepherd,” Norse Thomas said. “And sometimes you have to fend off wolves.”