Pastor Luke Swanson doesn’t know if the burglary, fire and racist graffiti at his church in north Minneapolis qualifies as a hate crime. But for him, it was “certainly a crime by someone full of hate.”
Swanson spoke in front of the charred remains of the piano and other fixtures inside his Community Covenant Church, at 901 Humbold Ave. N., this afternoon. The blaze burned so hot it melted the front of the air conditioner the congregation had just installed at the back of the sanctuary. He said authorities found what appeared to be a burned Bible in the parking lot.
Swanson said the church hosted vacation Bible school last night, and that a member of his congregation returned just before midnight to look for a set of keys left at the church. The church was on fire.
Firefighters were summoned, said Minneapolis police Sgt. Sean McKenna, an arson investigator.
“Upon their arrival, they found a fire that was mostly contained to a piano inside the church… The fire was quickly extinguished, but now we’re dealing with smoke and water issues for the church,” McKenna said. “My guess is that this fire, is simply, at this time, an act of vandalism.”
Authorities also found graffiti on the side of the garage in the church parking lot: It said “F— n—–,” McKenna said, referring to a racial epithet. He said its hard to judge a motive for the crime without a suspect but that that the fire may very well be a hate crime. “Certainly its something that you have to consider, just by the fact that its a house of worship and then some of the graffiti.”
McKenna said the church fire was the first of nine fires thought to have sprung up in the area around midnight last night, most of them in trash bins. Debris that may have been from last month’s storm was also set afire. He said the randomness of the incident was what made it particularly disturbing. “This is a nice neighborhood. This church is an anchor in this community,” he said.
Friends of the church were filtering into the smoke-darkened sanctuary this afternoon. Swanson said people rushed to the church’s aid after the fire was reported, vacuuming up water from the floor and painting over the graffiti outside. He said he didn’t know whether the racial epithet was targeted directly at his congregation.
Swanson called his flock “diverse,” but said he couldn’t characterize it’s racial makeup.
The pastor said members of the congregation stayed most of the night trying to clean up the mess. “A number of people there decided they weren’t going to go until they got all the water up from all the fire hoses,” Swanson said. “You know, just young men, 18-19 years old mopped for two hours and then went and painted the garage. That is always encouraging to me. Events like this, you know this church has meant a lot to them. It’s been family for them.”
McKenna said anyone with information about the church or other fires should call 612-673-3389.