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Vandalism shocks small church in Gwinner, N.D.

The Gustaf Adolf Lutheran Church in Gwinner, N.D., was vandalized earlier this month. Special to The Forum

The Rev. Anda Wilhelm speaks both of disbelief and determination when she thinks about the recent vandalism at her church in Gwinner, N.D.

"We still feel it's a horrendous act. We're still in disbelief that someone would actually enter a sacred space and desecrate it," said Wilhelm, pastor of Gustaf Adolf Lutheran Church.

Feces was found on the liturgy book from which the pastor preaches and on altar cloths, Sargent County Sheriff Travis Paeper said of the incident that occurred on March 13 or 14.

Phrases including "Luther is a sinner," "Repent" and "Catholic is right" were scrawled in permanent black marker at various places inside the church.

It was a shocking scene, church members say.

Congregation president Chad Decker said his feeling was that this "kind of thing just doesn't happen to small towns like ours."

Photos from the scene provided by the Sheriff's Department show a red-cushioned bench with the words "The end is near." A pane of glass bore the message "Your going to hell" (sic). Writing on one wall reads: "Gott ist tot!," which is German for "God is dead." It's a phrase associated with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was critical of Christianity.

Even so, Wilhelm doesn't believe the congregation ever "felt completely unempowered." She said members "were determined that we would continue to worship."

The matter is under investigation and the Sheriff's Department is following up on tips, Paeper said. No suspects have been named, and authorities do not have a "direct motive."

Paeper said there is no dollar figure on the damage, which members of the congregation have already cleaned up. He did not believe it was going to be a "large amount of money."

He said he's never seen an incident like it in his law enforcement career.

'It's kind of a sick mind whoever's responsible for it," Paeper said.

The church is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the individual or individuals responsible.

There was no forced entry into the church. The congregation had an open-door policy so those needing sanctuary could find it there, Decker said. He said it makes him "feel bad that that may not be possible anymore."

But the damage isn't the end of the story. The mess has been cleaned up, and congregants will gather in the sanctuary today for the first time since it was vandalized.

That's in line with what Decker said he heard from congregants after the incident. People told him they need to get past this, get back in the sanctuary and "move on," he said.

"I think there is this sense of excitement at reclaiming our space and sanctifying it," Wilhelm said.

She can point to positives coming out of the ordeal.

"We have experienced people saying that they feel closer together," Wilhelm said. "They are thankful that in the midst of this, that good things have happened. It could have been worse, a lot worse."