Yesterday was a long Sunday, which had followed two grinding days of our Diocesan Convention, an annual snooze-fest more about Robert's Rules than Jesus' Gospel. After two services, and a two hour meeting with a new outreach board, I was dead-tired, looking forward to cocooning with my newspaper (you remember those?) and going to bed early.
But as I started for my car, I saw two of the parishioners who had willingly spent so much time with me coming back up the sidewalk with a grim look. "We need you to look at something over here."
We walked about 50 yards to the front yard of the small house adjacent to St. Martin's in the Fields Episcopal Church. It's the place where our youth gather on Sunday nights. It's also home to a new after school program we're running in partnership with the Palmetto Women's Center and Crayton Middle School. The program is for at-risk sixth grade girls, several of whom are African-American.
There, in a pine tree lopsided from SCE&G "trimming", hung a rope, fashioned crudely into a replica of a hangman's noose. Below it was a pile of wood and an old plastic bucket. The damnedest thing.
We examined the rope: it was made of nylon, with the ends burned off. We untied it slowly, untangled it from the branch and shook our heads. Who would have done this, and why? It's a few days before Halloween, this is a neighborhood full of prank-loving teens, and a only a couple of blocks away from where two A. C. Flora students hung a noose two weeks ago, in an apparent attempt to show how sophomoric sophomores (and juniors) can be.
We put everything back behind the house and I sent the parishioners home. I called the Rector, who was disturbed, but we decided against calling the police or the media, in the belief that we would only give the perpetrators what they wanted: publicity. I went home and thought about it a lot.
Was it an ugly racial incident or Halloween prank? St. Martin's is one of those moderate-to-conservative Episcopal parishes with a significant number of active service people and retired military, and while we have several families that are minorities, we're still pretty much a congregation of WASP's. But we've been integrated for decades and I doubt the Klan or the South Carolina Nazi's even know we exist. Besides, we're Episcopalians, and they wrote us off as hopelessly liberal generations ago.
The message of the noose, however, was so muddled as to be incomprehensible. I can't call it a crime, other than trespassing. I can't say that we were intimidated. The three of us are pretty worldly-wise and it would take a great deal more than a six-foot length of three-eighths-inch nylon to make us tremble. But what if one of the children from Crayton had found it the next day? What if one of our youth group members had found it? Would they laugh? Would they be frightened? Or is that reserved for adults who take silly pranks and turn them into the damnedest things?
I know that there's nothing funny about racial hatred. I know that there is plenty of it to go around in South Carolina. But I believe that this was just the copy-cat work of pranksters looking for a Halloween laugh, not a hate-crime worthy of front-page news.
Still, I'll be looking at the trees around the church more carefully from now on. And if another one of these things appears, I'll cut it down too. I don't think nooses make for very good curb appeal.