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Pastor says AME church struck by racist vandalism will move on as FBI investigates

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When Pastor Carieta Cain Grizzell saw the racist epithets and threats scratched onto her church’s silver rooftop air conditioning unit, she felt a familiar pain.

“I was just flabbergasted, just appalled …. It really hurts that someone would feel that way towards us when we’re open to the community and all we want to do is serve and help however we can for hurting people,” said Grizzell, who leads Murph-Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Highlands outside Sacramento.

The FBI is investigating the attack, and the faithful must now move forward. They’ve done so before, after vandals painted the N-word on the church’s front door and smashed stained-glass windows in June 2016. That time, Grizzell relied on her faith. She’ll do the same after this offense, she said.

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“I know what God is able to do,” Grizzell told The Times. “My faith is very strong, and nothing can tear that away from me.”

To adapt to the coronavirus, Murph-Emmanuel’s members have been worshiping from their vehicles on the first Sunday of each month. At July’s car communion, one churchgoer’s dog hopped out, Grizzell said. The woman chased the pup behind Murph-Emmanuel’s brick building, and as she caught the dog she looked up and saw the offensive language scrawled into the metal air conditioning unit.

“She didn’t call me until a day later, and then when I went to the church, I called the police,” Grizzell said.

The racist language written covered all sides of the unit. “KKK,” said one threat. “Kill um all,” read another. The N-word was written too, along with a symbol for anarchy.

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The pastor said she spoke with an FBI civil rights investigator. The agency does not discuss ongoing investigations, and its Sacramento bureau has not commented on the Murph-Emmanuel case. U.S. Atty. McGregor Scott said his office “is committed to protect the religious rights of all and will vigorously investigate and prosecute whenever these acts cross the threshold of a federal crime.”

“We will work with our local law enforcement partners to investigate religiously motivated vandalizing of any house of worship — whether it is a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, a Hindu temple or a Christian church,” Scott told The Times.

Based on sensor activity, Grizzell thinks the vandals struck committed in late June. Throughout that month, a flurry of racist acts were reported across the state and country. Online hate speech soared too. The spike in racist activity followed in the wake of George Floyd’s death and came as a protest movement brought racism into national focus. Grizzell acknowledged that the defacement of her church might have something to do with the wave of hate.

“That could have something to do with it … but I know we experienced a similar problem in 2016,” she said, referring to the prior attack on the church.

Grizzell said she thinks the Trump administration has brought forth more explicit racism over the last four years, but knows anti-Black hatred and violence are as old as time.

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“Being Black, being African American, that’s part of your life, whether it be covert or overt … Racism, it’s something Black people experience all the time,” she said.

The pastor, 74, remembers the signs that read “colored” and “white” fixed to bathrooms and water fountains in her childhood home in Washington, D.C.

“You are treated differently. You learn,” Grizzell said. “Faith is the only way you can really deal with it and feel OK … You have to know who you are. If you know your history, your heritage, that helps quite a bit.”

American culture and schools don’t teach Black people about their rich history, she said. She knows the history of her family, though: Her great-great grandfather was Richard “Daddy” Cain, Grizzell said, a legendary minister and politician who represented South Carolina in Congress during Reconstruction, before Jim Crow laws stripped Black Americans of their voting rights, and led the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners in a 2015 mass shooting.

“I think Dylann Roof knew that history when he went into Emanuel,” Grizzell said.

The threat of racist violence against her own church lingers on her mind sometimes, she said.

“It’s always there. You know, I think about it, possibilities that someone would try to do some harm,” she said. “There is some fear, but as a Christian we stand on the word that God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of sound mind. But of course we have to take precautions and be wise, not fools.”

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The church is upgrading its security. Grizzell said the church in 2019 received a security grant from the Department of Homeland Security and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which will help Murph-Emmanuel put up a fence. They’re upgrading their cameras and working on getting better lighting too. Grizzell hopes a GoFundMe campaign will help the church raise money for the improvements.

In the meantime, the pastor said, the church will continue its mission as normally as it can during the COVID-19 pandemic: live-streamed homilies, drive-in services, ministry focused on safely feeding the mostly-white community surrounding the church.

Murph-Emmanuel AME will move forward with new friends too. Local faith organizations have flocked to the church’s side since the attack, Grizzell said.

“I’m overjoyed and happy about the support and the love that has been poured out to us. It helps to make us feel better, like we’re not alone. We’re not alone,” she said.

Violence against houses of faith — especially Black houses of faith — is “always there,” but the pastor said she’s happy to be in a position to address it.

“If it takes for our church to be involved in this kind of investigations to catch any person that would do harm to our church or any other church, synagogue or mosque or do any other harm against someone, I’m glad to be involved,” Grizzell said.

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