CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – The flames were out and the smoke had dissipated before Pastor Vernon Hooks arrived at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church to find a burned cross Tuesday morning.
By then, he was already praying – asking forgiveness for whomever was responsible.
"Whoever did it, we forgive them," Hooks said Tuesday afternoon as he gathered with a number of concerned church members outside the Rossview Road church in Clarksville where the charred cross still lies on the ground. "That's the message, that we are a forgiving church and we'll let the police do their job."
'It was devastating'
Clarksville Police arrived on the scene at about 6:30 a.m. after a church member reported the incident. Another church member had passed the church that morning and saw the cross propped up against a closed gate in the church parking lot, according to a police report.
Hooks said another church member contacted him at his home in Nashville and he promptly drove to Clarksville to see for himself.
Other than scorch marks on the gate, there was no property damage. But the cross and what it represents to the mostly black church congregation caused heavy hearts.
"It was devastating," Hooks said. "I was somewhat hurt, but then I took time out to ask God to forgive whoever did this."
Sgt. Charles Gill of the Clarksville Police Department said the case was classified as a "hate crime" because it met all the criteria for reporting hate crimes to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations and the FBI.
"It was assigned to a detective, but we have no leads," he said Tuesday. "We've got nothing."
So far, no one has reported seeing anything unusual. It appears the cross may have been burned overnight Monday or early Tuesday morning. Anyone with information can call the Crime Stoppers TIPS line at 645-TIPS. Information could lead to a reward of up to $1,000, he said.
Gill said there have been a number of vandalism cases in the area committed by juveniles but no other cross burnings. He said police are investigating the possibility that juveniles are responsible for the burned cross and may not understand the consequences that go along with a hate crime.
"They may think they are being funny," he said.
But it remained unknown if the perpetrators were adults or juveniles.
"We've heard no chatter of hate groups in town, and we usually would hear about that," Gill said.
A burned cross was found in the parking lot of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday. Clarksville police are investigating. Stephanie Ingersoll
'The never has happened'
Hooks said the church had received no other hateful messages or threats and he did not know who might have committed the crime.
"We have no idea," he said. "I've been here 34 years, and this never has happened."
The church has 150 to 200 active members, he said.
On Wednesday, they will hold a prayer meeting and, on Sunday, an associate pastor will preach about forgiveness, he said.
The church has been the victim of crimes before.
Member John Ogburn, who at 81 calls himself the "oldest member" of the church, recalls two break-ins.
Hooks said the most recent was about four years ago. Then too, the congregation prayed for forgiveness for the person who stole from the church.
"The individual that did it came back later on and confessed to me and brought money to cover what he had taken and we forgave him," he said.
Geraldine Ogburn said she can forgive but can't understand why anyone would burn a cross at her quiet church.
"No one ever acted like they had a reason to burn crosses at the church," she said.
And Hooks shares her puzzlement.
"I just can't get over it," he said. "What was the purpose of it?"