HARTSBURG — The hum of conversation filled the dining room at Goshen Primitive Baptist Church in Hartsburg on Sunday as church members gathered after their 10:30 a.m. service.
The mood at the church's monthly lunch was upbeat despite what happened a week before, when worshipers arrived for morning services to find the church grounds in disarray.
In the cemetery, vandals had damaged more than 80 tombstones. Two windows were broken in a shed behind the church.
Additionally collection pouches were missing from the church itself, church member Clay Austin said.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Lora Wren Jones, who serves as secretary of the church’s cemetery committee.
Church members have since worked together to repair almost all of the damage.
After services on Sunday, when they came together to celebrate July birthdays and the birth of America, members also said the vandalism had made the community stronger.
“I would say it has brought the church closer together,” Harold Nichols said. Nichols is the cemetery committee treasurer and he also took charge of the repair process.
Nichols said he and 11 other church members helped repair the cemetery, placing toppled tombstones back on their pedestals and bracing broken tombstones together with strips of aluminum.
Nichols said church members put in a total of 45 hours of work over three mornings last week. Although initial estimates of the damage to church property were around $2,000, the volunteer labor has limited costs to about $150 so far, Nichols said.
“They got right down here and got on it,” Wren Jones said. “That’s just the way we do things in our church.”
Nichols said he estimates further repairs will take two to three more hours, depending how much help he has.
Cory Blackburn is one church member who helped with repairs last week.
“The older gentlemen here, they do a whole lot for us, so I’m just trying to help out and pitch in,” said Blackburn.
Nichols said it is important to repair the tombstones because they are important historical markers.
“When somebody damages a tombstone, they’re damaging history,” Nichols said. “This is why we want to fix them as soon as we can and get them back in the place where they belong, because then we know who was there.”
The cemetery reaches almost two centuries into the past. Its first tombstone dates from 1838, Nichols said, though the cemetery was started around 1820. The stones are so old that they cannot be replaced so he and other church members can only do so much, he said.
Among the oldest tombstones repaired was that of Berryman Wren, the church’s first pastor. Wren Jones, his great-great-granddaughter, said the cemetery vandalism has reminded her of the role her ancestors played not only in the church’s foundation but also in its longevity.
“They kept the church going,” Wren Jones said. “When you take a little church out in the middle of nowhere, for it to live 175 years is quite a feat.”
Although the atmosphere at lunch Sunday was positive, community members still voiced sadness and anger about the vandalism.
Wren Jones said both the church community and her personal faith have helped her to cope with the incident.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Wren Jones said. “You just do what you can to right it and go on.”
Fellow church member Brenda Glascock Austin, also the descendant of a church founder, said her faith has affected her reaction to the incident as well.
“There’s no need to be angry or lash out at the people who did it, because God’s our judge, and he’ll take care of them in the right way,” Glascock Austin said.
“I hope they’re caught, and I hope they have to pay some kind of restitution for the expense of fixing it,” Glascock Austin said. “I think that’s only right. They need to be responsible for their actions.”
Detective Tom O’Sullivan, of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, said officers knocked on doors and talked to neighbors in the area last week. He said Monday that the department gleaned a couple of tips from that process, but still didn't have any suspects.
“We’re hoping that some of these tips pan out or that somebody’s able to provide some further information,” O’Sullivan said.
Nichols said it was possible the collection pouch theft was a separate incident. Carol Rumble said she stopped by to clean the church on Saturday, June 26, and found the church door ajar and the lights on. She did not notice anything stolen from the church at the time, but the next day churchgoers noticed that the collection pouches were missing.
Rumble also said there wasn't any damage to the cemetery while she was at the church on Saturday.
This is not the first time Goshen Primitive Baptist Church has been vandalized. Nichols said the last incident was about 40 years ago, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, when vandals stole some antique furniture and inflicted some damage in the cemetery.
Nichols said he saw no connection between that incident and recent events, but amid Sunday’s celebrations, Glascock Austin laughed as she suggested there was, perhaps, a pattern developing.
“Maybe we’re good for another 40 years now,” she said.