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Pastor Vernon Woods arrived at Clarksville's New Hope Missionary Baptist Church to find a burned cross Tuesday morning. / Robert Smith, The (Clarksville, Tenn.) Leaf-Chronicle

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - The flames were out and the smoke had dissipated before Pastor Vernon Hooks arrived at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church to find a burned cross Tuesday morning.

By then, he was already praying - asking forgiveness for whomever was responsible.

"Whoever did it, we forgive them," Hooks said Tuesday afternoon as he gathered with concerned church members outside the Clarksville church, where the charred cross still lies on the ground. "That's the message, that we are a forgiving church and we'll let the police do their job."

Clarksville Police arrived on the scene Tuesday morning after a church member reported the incident. Another church member had passed the church and saw the cross propped up against a closed gate in the church parking lot, according to a police report.

Hooks said another church member contacted him at his home in Nashville and he promptly drove to Clarksville to see for himself.

Other than scorch marks on the gate, there was no property damage. But the cross and what it represents to the mostly black church congregation caused heavy hearts.

"It was devastating," Hooks said. "I was somewhat hurt, but then I took time out to ask God to forgive whoever did this."

Sgt. Charles Gill of the Clarksville Police Department said the case was classified as a hate crime.

"It was assigned to a detective, but we have no leads," he said Tuesday. "We've got nothing."

So far, no one has reported seeing anything unusual. It appears the cross may have been burned overnight Monday or early Tuesday morning.

Gill said police are investigating the possibility that juveniles are responsible and may not understand the consequences that go along with a hate crime.

Hooks said the church had received no other hateful messages or threats and he did not know who might have committed the crime.

"I've been here 34 years, and this never has happened," he said.

The church has 150 to 200 active members. On Wednesday, they will hold a prayer meeting and, on Sunday, an associate pastor will preach about forgiveness, Hooks said.

Geraldine Ogburn said she can forgive but can't understand why anyone would burn a cross at her quiet church.

"No one ever acted like they had a reason to burn crosses at the church," she said.

Hooks shares her puzzlement.

"I just can't get over it," he said. "What was the purpose of it?"



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Burned cross found outside Tenn. church

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