By J. Bennett Guess
United Church News Director
April 28, 2005
Arson is the apparent cause of an estimated $50,000 in damage to St. Mark's United Church of Christ in Valrico, Fla., where some are speculating that the congregation's enhanced public visibility from the denomination's national advertising campaign could be a motivating factor.
"At 1 o'clock last Friday morning (April 22) their large 'God Is Still Speaking' banner was slashed with a broken glass [and] gasoline was used to encircle their parish house/office building and ignited," said the Rev. C. Jack Richards, Interim Florida Conference Minister, in an e-mail. "No one was hurt but about $50,000 dollars in estimated damage at this point was created."
Heidi Adams, the church's office manager, said the detached garage was destroyed by the blaze and the church's parish house, which contains church offices and Sunday School rooms, received smoke damage. Church records were salvaged, she said.
The sanctuary, which is in a separate building, was not affected.
The 100-member church, founded in 1983, is located about 15 miles east of Tampa. The Rev. Garry Scheuer, interim pastor, who is out of town and unavailable for comment, was in town at the time of the incident and met with investigators shortly after the fire was reported by a passing motorist, Adams said.
"We don't know if [the church's participation in the Stillspeaking Initiative] was tied in or not, or if that was just coincidental," Adams said. "But apparently there was some specific evidence. We don't want to say anything until we know."
Adams confirmed that the banner was vandalized in an act separate from the fire.
"We don't know how, but [the banner] was destroyed," she said. "People are upset and want to know answers, but we are also grateful that it wasn't worse."
The case is under investigation by local authorities. The story has not been covered by Tampa media outlets.
"At present it is classified as arson but may turn into a hate crime, given how the banner was so violently attacked," Richards said.
The congregation has experienced increased exposure, including newcomers, due to active participation in the UCC's national identity effort, Richards said.
"[The pastor] said they have had a number of people come to the church because of our 'God Is Still Speaking' Initiative," Richards said.
Expressions of support can be sent to St. Mark UCC, 2914 Lithia Pinecrest Road, Valrico, FL 33594-5627.
In June 2004, several homes in Valrico were spray painted with racial slurs, profanities and references to the Ku Klux Klan. Community residents responded by expressing support for the victims and joining together to paint over the offensive words and images. Three juveniles were later found responsible for the 2004 incident.