This is a story about two small-town Virginia churches with the same name, but two very different congregations. They’ve each found themselves caught up in controversy tied to President Trump’s racist rhetoric. NPR’s Sarah McCammon recently visited both congregations.
A welcome sign on the way into town reads “Historic Appomattox: Where Our Nation Reunited.” But here in Appomattox, where the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, there are still reminders of division.
Not far away, a sign posted in front of Friendship Baptist Church reads “AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT.”
Pastor Earnie Lucas said he posted that message on his church sign several weeks ago. It was around the same time that President Trump tweeted an attack on four Democratic members of Congress — all women of color — saying they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Lucas, 85, is white and has been a pastor in this community for decades. He defends his sign and expresses anger about the response it has received online and in news reports.
“Don’t talk to me about that flag out yonder, or that sign out yonder!” he thundered from the pulpit. “This is America! And I love America!”
Lucas asks if anyone in the small, all-white congregation is “from Yankee land.” No one raises their hand.
“The letters that came from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I am sorry to say, those folk don’t know how to talk,” Lucas said. “You’re talking about some vile, wretched language. And where they told me to go, and how long to stay — they were filthy in their conversation.”
Lucas said he has gotten threats of violence, even death, since putting up the sign. He also got letters of support, including some donations, from around the country.
Local media initially reported that several members of the congregation had staged a walkout in protest — or out of fear of the backlash. But last weekend, Lucas said most of the regulars had returned.
“I had no ill intent against anyone — around here or in the state of Virginia,” Lucas said. “I was talking about people who have come over here illegally and want to tear the place up.”
During the service, he mentioned the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that left 22 people dead. But afterward, he said he doesn’t believe news reports that the white shooter was targeting Latinos. Lucas also said he does not believe analyses suggesting that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than others living in the United States.
Lucas doesn’t see his words, or the president’s, as racist.
“I think this idea of racism has been blown out of proportion,” Lucas said. “I really do. We’ve got some sorry people, black and white … but I don’t pay any attention to that. If a man comes to me and behaves himself, we get along good together, I’ll go to bat for him, any way I can.”
“I don’t want any Muslims in America”
One of Lucas’ church members, Dianne Cook, 69, said she agrees with the message on her church sign, and with her pastor. She said Trump was right to criticize the four Democratic congresswomen, who include the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
“Where’d their parents come from? Are they Americans?” Cook asked. “Just because she was born in America does not make her American.”
“Doesn’t it?” I asked. “Doesn’t it legally, though, under the Constitution?”
“Under the Constitution, yes,” Cook acknowledged, then paused. “But I don’t know how to express that, to make you understand that I wish she, I wish they, well — I don’t want any Muslims in America.”
“We are not that church”
Two hours away in Hopewell, Va., is another Friendship Baptist Church. The congregation is predominantly black, and the members are experiencing this moment very differently from the Friendship Baptist congregants in Appomattox.
Sitting in his church office, Pastor Norwood Carson said his secretary has received angry calls from people confused about their name.
“We gave a standard response to all of them,” Carson said. “‘You are calling the Friendship Baptist Church of Hopewell. The church that loves God, loves others, and serves the community. We are not that church that says, ‘America Love it or Leave it.’ ”
Carson, 59, said the meaning of that sign is clear. “Obviously, it’s a racist statement,” he said. “But to find out it came from a church just really took me for a loop.”
Carson said he’d like to talk to Pastor Lucas at Friendship Baptist in Appomattox, and try to understand more about what motivated that sign. Lucas said he’s open to the conversation.
“This is not who we are”
Elaine Thomas, 70, is a longtime church member at Hopewell’s Friendship Baptist Church. She was a teenager growing up outside Richmond, Va., at the height of the civil rights movement.
“My husband and I were looking forward to [having] peace, security, watching our grandchildren grow — now our great-grandchildren,” Thomas said. “And we had no idea that we would have to start to worry about them being exposed to the types of things that we saw and that we heard when we were young.”
Thomas said President Trump is responsible for stoking renewed racism in America.
“This is not who we are,” Thomas said. “This may have been how we were at some point. … But this is not who we are right now. We’ve come too far to turn around and go back, and we’re not going back.”