Rev. Gordon Coleman remembers as a 12-year-old boy seeing the damage caused by racist vandals to Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church where his dad served as pastor in Callaway County, Missouri. Forty-six years later, Gordon is pastor of that church and surveying the massive damage caused by another attack Wednesday (Nov. 25). That’s why he knows the latest incident targeting the Black Baptist church is about more than just finding the most recent perpetuators.
“Know what you’re fighting and what you’re fighting for,” he told Word&Way on Thanksgiving, the day after the attack. “So, what we’re up against is not so much of bringing somebody to justice when there’s a whole generation after generation after generation that pick up this torch.”
Damage on Wednesday to the rural church near Holts Summit includes shot-up windows and doors, damage from fireworks exploded inside, broken pews and podium, knocked-down walls, and overturned heating and cooling unit, refrigerator, and stove. Vandals hit both the historic structure of the church started by enslaved persons before the Civil War and the congregation’s newer facility.
But while the damage from Wednesday surpassed other incidents, Coleman noted vandals frequently strike.
“In the past we’ve had extensive damage but not to that severity,” he said. “We will get hit on the regular. Windows busted, doors shot in by high-caliber weapons. Just the last two months we got shot five or six times, and had replaced that door. This last time we thought we had one where it would withstand that, but it didn’t. They went to a higher caliber weapon. Something like a warzone. And so, when they would go in, they would also just fire that weapon around through the drywall and through the furniture, refrigerator, and whatever other appliances and stuff they could shoot through to damage or tear it up because we have been there since 1852 and refuse to move.”
The older building, Coleman said, “was built by slaves” after the enslaver there saw they “had to gather on Sundays under a tree” and so allowed them to “build a church in what he called the old sheep shed.”
“The slaves cut the trees themselves, the logs that are under there now. And put them in a foundation form and erected a church on top of that, which is the church sitting there now,” Coleman said.
Callaway County, which celebrated its bicentennial on Wednesday — the day of the attack on Mount Vernon — sits in the formerly slavery-heavy region of Missouri called “Little Dixie.” Prior to the Civil War, Callaway boasted one of the highest counts of enslaved persons in the state, with enslaved Blacks comprising just over 30% of the county’s entire population in 1860. During the decades of racial terror in the late 18th century and early 19th century, the four lynchings of Blacks in Callaway put it among the worst counties in the state.
Coleman sees the continued damage to the church’s two buildings — especially the one built by enslaved people that the congregation leaves standing as a sign to that heritage — as spiritual attacks. Thus, he sees this as more than just about who did the most recent damage since vandals today are not those who attacked the church when he was child.
“Spiritually, we understand,” he said. “God has already told us: you’re going to be attacked every day because this ain’t against flesh and blood. You desire to keep something alive spiritually that others would have said, well, we’ll close doors and we might even bulldoze it down. But we were under the understanding, this is a reminder to our children and children to come how important it is to cherish what your elders and your history stands for.”
Coleman insisted that “as long as there’s breath in my body” he will refuse to tear down that historic structure.
“I refuse to do it,” he added. “We’re still going to remember from whence we came. And the irony was, in between the old building and the new building was a cemetery. And that reminded us: those that put forth all that sweat, blood, and tears, some of them didn’t make it up here. But it’s up to us not to try to demean what they’ve done with all that work to get us where we’re at. We wouldn’t be in this new building if it had not been for them in the old building.”
He said the new damage to the two buildings will cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair, and they need to raise funds to install a better security system to capture identities of those attacking the church. He noted that this is particularly expensive because the older building is no longer insurable since the many incidents of vandalism mean companies will either not insure it or will price coverage too high for the small congregation to afford.
“You know how much that exhausts your funding that you have two buildings and a small population? And the pastor has to work two or three jobs to make ends meet for his family, because the church can hardly suffice on what they bring,” Coleman said. “So, as a pastor, you have to do all you can to make sure the church stays afloat.”
The church is working to create a fund where people can send donations. Coleman noted they’ve covered the cost of past damage themselves, but this round is not only more expensive but it also comes amid financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The church has not met for in-person services since March since many in the congregation are at high risk due to their age, and COVID-19 has hit the Black community across the country particularly hard.
The Callaway County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the latest vandalism. People can provide tips anonymously: callawaysheriff.org/crime-stoppers or 573-592-2474. A monetary reward will be given for “tips directly leading to the arrest of those responsible.”
UPDATE: For anyone who would like to give to help Mount Vernon repair the damage: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1904613 or Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church, PO Box 116, Holts Summit, MO 65043 (with “Building Fund” in memo).