Karen Heller: Tiny church unintimidated by hate message

The Rev. Myrtle Daniels (left) and parishioner Karyn Fisher in front of Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Woolwich Township with the sign that was vandalized.
The Rev. Myrtle Daniels (left) and parishioner Karyn Fisher in front of Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Woolwich Township with the sign that was vandalized. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 09, 2013

The sign adjacent to historic Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Woolwich Township, a one-story white frame building, usually reads, "All Are Welcome."

But on Sunday, parishioners discovered vandals had scrambled the letters to produce "No Nigers Welcome."

So the hoodlums were racist and stupid.

But they were meddling with the wrong church.

All 11 congregants.

"I thought people had gotten past that," said the Rev. Myrtle Daniels, who was a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the 1960s before moving north for school and a more tolerant racial climate. "I am incensed. It's not something that I intend to let die on the vine."

Mount Zion has survived plenty.

The church was founded in 1799. The building was consecrated in 1834 when the area was known as Small Gloucester, a community of black farmers who walked to worship.

Mount Zion, yards from the tracks, became an important stop on the Underground Railroad's Greenwich Line operated by Harriet Tubman. Runaway slaves hid in the dank crawl space below a trapdoor in the vestibule.

Over the decades, the neighborhood changed from peach orchards to subdivisions, from predominantly black to mostly white.

The cemetery, its headstones worn and listing in a marshy copse, is the final resting spot for 200 worshipers, including freed slaves and members of the U.S. Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War.

Both church and cemetery, the latter now incongruously surrounded by luxury homes, are on the National Register of Historic Places and the state's list of most endangered historic sites.

This is not the first hate crime against Mount Zion.

Twice before, the noxious word, spelled correctly, was spray-painted on the building, once on a side in the 1950s, the second time on the plain wooden double front door about 20 years ago.

The congregation was larger then, but not stronger. "The minister at the time didn't want the publicity," recalled Velma Smith McCoy, whose great-great-grandfather Moses White is buried out back.

So Mount Zion kept silent.

Not this time.

"We shall not be moved," Daniels preached Sunday as she mustered her three decades of experience working for the state Department of Corrections. "We are here for a reason."

The congregation went straight to police, who are taking the matter seriously. "Once we catch the knuckleheads who did this, we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law," said Woolwich Township Police Chief Russell Marino, who informed the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.

"I'm shocked and in disbelief that in 2013, people don't have better things to do and this kind of sentiment still exists," said veterinarian Karyn Fisher, who, with her three children, constitutes a third of the faithful and has big plans for her church. "You would think we would be so far beyond it."

Apparently, no.

Mount Zion hopes mercy and charity will come from this hateful act and the church will be heard and valued.

Lucile Stewart-Mitchell, 90ish, returned years ago after attending a Baptist church to worship in the sanctuary of her childhood. Sitting in the second pew in a colorful coat and hat, she said, "I think there are a lot of people who don't want us here."

She didn't look like she was going anywhere.

The church desperately needs a new roof. Which it is getting this spring, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the county.

Actually, Mount Zion needs a half-million dollars worth of building improvements, not easy with an annual operating budget of around $16,000. Everyone volunteers, cleans, sings in the choir.

"We were here for 214 years," said Daniels, who donates her time, "and we will be here for another 214 years. We are here for a reason."

And all are welcome.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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