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Royal Oak church leader: N-word, 'Heil Hitler' disrupted Sunday service

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A Royal Oak church's live Zoom service was hijacked Sunday morning by three people saying what the pastor described as "hate-filled racist things" with mentions of the N-word and "Heil Hitler."

The Rev. Beth Taylor, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church at 11 Mile and Woodward, posted about the incident that disrupted the 10 a.m. online Zoom service on the church's Facebook page and then spoke to The Detroit News about how "painful" the two interruptions were.

Taylor said the unidentified "individuals" were outside the church community and one seemed to be wearing blackface. The pastor said that after a second attempt to convene the congregation, "we made the decision to end the service to protect our community from these individuals."

"It was very painful. It was very humiliating," Taylor said. "It was targeted. It was so fast and painful, I don't have a quote for you."

The Rev. Beth Taylor explains the disruption during St. John's online service on Sunday in a Facebook post.

When the online service began, Taylor and other congregants on the call began to hear what appeared to be a foreign language that turned into racist expletives and symbols like swastikas. That's when Taylor told the congregants on the call that the Zoom feed was being ended.

After shutting the call down and restarting it, Taylor said as she began her sermon, the racist language resumed.

"We will not cease our work to bring about a just and equitable community," Taylor said in the Facebook post. "We will not stop the work Jesus calls us to do — to renounce all forms of racism and hatred and bigotry. We know this was a very disturbing morning, and we are going to do all that we can to prevent that from happening again."

Holly Cooper McNeal, who is the faith formation director at St. John’s and hosts the Zoom calls for the church, said she muted the people who were speaking during the service and they ended up un-muting themselves. That's when the profanity and racial slurs began, she said.

"I quickly removed him from the service, but there were others there as well," she recalled. "I removed them all as fast as I could. I was angry and very sad. The looks on the faces of our congregation were heartbreaking."

McNeal said her biracial children who were participating in the service as readers heard the racist statements.

"My children had just experienced their first real in-person brush with racism and hate, and they were very upset. St. John’s is a loving, diverse, affirming congregation with a pride banner on our lawn and Black Lives Matter on our digital sign. I knew right away someone had targeted us because we are shining the light of love and doing God’s work in the world."

The pastor said that although she was shocked by the racist interruption of the church service, she's not totally surprised given "the time that we're living in is sort of exposing deeper, underlying racism that exists all around us."

The congregation, she said, has been speaking out against racism and bigotry for years. "Justice and inclusion are our bedrock," she said. "It doesn't surprise me, but it is painful when it happens."

Taylor said the church has contacted Zoom "to ensure that our safety is not compromised again" and is unsure if she will reach out to the local authorities to file a report.

The church has about 300 members and has had online-only services since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic prompted state officials to suspend in-person church services around the state.

Several congregants commented on Taylor's Facebook post saying that they are a loving community and they wouldn't be bowed by hate and intolerance.

Taylor said she plans to address the situation with a Facebook live post later on Sunday.

"We're not going to be intimidated," she said. "We're going to continue with resolve and with love because we must."

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