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2 Virginia Churches Caught Up In Debate Over Trump's Racist Rhetoric


And now a story about two churches, both in small towns in Virginia, both named Friendship Baptist and both with two very different congregations. Both Friendship Baptist churches have found themselves caught up in a controversy tied to President Trump. And they've been feeling the impact of the president's racist rhetoric in different ways. Here's NPR's Sarah McCammon, who visited both congregations.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: A welcome sign on the way into town reads, historic Appomattox - where our nation reunited. But here, where the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, there are still reminders of division, like another sign posted in front of Friendship Baptist Church on the edge of town.

EARNIE LUCAS: I want to speak on the subject - America - love it or leave it.

MCCAMMON: Pastor Ernie Lucas says he posted that 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, telling them to, quote, "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.' Lucas is white, 85 years old. From the pulpit, he defends his sign and expresses anger about the response it's received online and in news reports.

LUCAS: Anybody in here from Yankee land?

MCCAMMON: No one raises their hand.

LUCAS: The letters that came from north of the Mason-Dixon line - I am sorry to say those folks don't know how to talk. You talking about some vile, wretched language.

MCCAMMON: Lucas tells his small, all-white congregation he's gotten threats of violence, even death since putting up the sign. He also got letters of support from around the country.

LUCAS: (Singing) My country 'tis of thee.

MCCAMMON: Lucas says he has no ill intent against anyone. But he is worried about people coming into the country illegally and committing crimes. During the service, he mentioned the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. But afterward, he said he doesn't believe news reports that the white shooter was targeting Latinos.

LUCAS: I think this idea of racism has been blown out of proportion. I really do. We got some sorry people, black and white. But I don't pay any attention to any of it (ph).

MCCAMMON: One of Pastor Lucas's church members is Dianne Cook. Her car is parked near the America - love it or leave it sign. She agrees with the message and her pastor. And she says Trump was right to criticize the four Democratic Congress women who include the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

DIANNE COOK: Where their parents come from? Are they Americans? Just because she was born in America does not make her American.

MCCAMMON: Doesn't it legally, though, under the Constitution?

COOK: Under the Constitution - yes. But I don't know how to express it to make you understand that I wish she - I wish they - well, I don't want any Muslims in America.

MCCAMMON: Two hours away in Hopewell, Va., is another Friendship Baptist Church.

NORWOOD CARSON: We are not that church that says, America - love it or leave it.

MCCAMMON: Pastor Norwood Carson says his church has gotten angry calls from people confused about their name. His response...

CARSON: You are calling the Friendship Baptist Church of Hopewell, the church that loves God, loves others and serves the community.

MCCAMMON: Carson is 59. And he, like most of his congregation, is African-American. He says the meaning of the love it or leave it sign is clear.

CARSON: Obviously, it's a racist statement. But to find out it came from a church just really took me for a loop.

ELAINE THOMAS: This is not who we are.

MCCAMMON: Elaine Thomas is one longtime church member at Hopewell's Friendship Baptist Church. She was a teenager growing up outside of Richmond, Va., at the height of the civil rights movement.

THOMAS: And us as a Christian community right now - we have to work that much harder to bring people back together, to unite people, to let us know that we're much better than this.

MCCAMMON: Thomas believes President Trump is responsible for stoking renewed racism in America.

THOMAS: This may have been how we were at some point. I'm going to say back in the '50s and '60s. 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.

MCCAMMON: Thomas's Pastor Norwood Carson says he'd like to talk to Pastor Ernie Lucas at the other Friendship Baptist and try to understand more about what motivated that sign. Lucas says he's open to the conversation. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Appomattox. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.