Church organist arrested in post-election vandalism at Episcopal congregation in Indiana

“Heil Trump” was spray-painted on the exterior of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, sometime either late Nov. 12 or early Nov. 13. Photo: Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] A staff organist has been arrested in the post-election vandalism at an Episcopal church in Indiana – an incident that generated national headlines in November as a possible case of politically motivated hate speech, but one that prosecutors now say was instead the act of someone hoping to mobilize others disappointed with the election results.

Nathan Stang, 26, faces a misdemeanor count of institutional criminal mischief for the damage to St. David’s Episcopal Church, the congregation in Bean Blossom, Indiana, where he serves as organist. He was arrested May 3, three days after Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry came to St. David’s to preside at the Sunday Eucharist and preach.

The congregation feels “like we had the rug pulled out from underneath us,” the Rev. Kelsey Hutto, priest-in-charge at St. David’s, told Episcopal News Service in a May 3 interview.

Earlier in the day, Hutto released a statement on the church’s website saying, “Nathan is a member of our St. David’s family and naturally there is a certain amount of betrayal with this act.”

“Over the coming weeks and days we will process our emotions regarding this hurtful act. I ask that we remember what we have stood for over the past few months – love and forgiveness,” she said.

St. David’s was one of at least two Episcopal congregations that were targeted with graffiti on the weekend after Donald Trump was elected president. The graffiti at St. David’s included the words “Heil Trump” as well as a gay slur and a swastika.

Nathan Stang

Organist Nathan Stang is shown in a photo posted with his bio on the website of St. David’s Episcopal Church.

Stang reported the vandalism at St. David’s to Hutto on Nov. 13, saying he discovered it when he arrived that Sunday morning to prepare for services.

A statement released by Brown County Prosecuting Attorney Theodore F. Adams said Stang, when confronted with results of the nearly six-month investigation, confessed to spray-painting the graffiti himself.

“Stang stated that he wanted to mobilize a movement after being disappointed in and fearful of the outcome of the national election,” Adams said, adding that investigators concluded this was not a hate crime. “Stang denied that his actions were motivated by any anti-Christian or anti-gay motivations.”

Stang was arrested about a half hour west of the church, in Bloomington, Indiana, and brought to Nashville, Indiana, to be booked into the Brown County Jail, the Herald Times newspaper reported, adding that he was released after posting a $155 bond. The charge carries a maximum potential sentence of one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

“This incident has been a blight on our small and diverse community, and I am proud of the hard work put forth by the Brown County Sheriff’s Office,” Adams said in his news release. “It was truly a team effort.”

Bean Blossom, Indiana, is a town of fewer than 3,000 people some 50 miles south of Indianapolis. St. David’s serves people from five communities in Brown County, Indiana, focusing its outreach on addressing hunger and the needs in a county where 97 percent of its 15,000 residents are white.

The vandalism thrust the Episcopal congregation into the national spotlight, along with Church of Our Savior in Silver Spring, Maryland, where a sign was found defaced with the words “Trump Nation Whites Only” on the same day.

Hutto told ENS in November that her congregation was trying to respond to the vandalism with a message of love and welcome.

“I’ve been using Presiding Bishop Curry’s statement that ‘sometimes doing the right thing is not always the popular thing,’ and we are living into that, and proud of that,” Hutto said then, “and we believe that facing hate with love is the right way to go about our call as Christians.”

Stang has served for about a year in the paid position of organist while he attends Indiana University, in Bloomington. St. David’s website describes him as “a composer, teacher, cat lover and organist” who is pursuing a doctorate in music.

Hutto told ENS after Stang’s arrest that she was unaware he was a suspect in the vandalism until the morning of his arrest. The congregation expects Stang to be held responsible, but the news of his involvement will not change how St. David’s responds to the incident, she said.

“The fact of the matter is, it didn’t matter who perpetrated the crime. In the end, our message of love and forgiveness extends to all,” Hutto said.

Stang’s future with the congregation was expected to be discussed May 3 by the vestry at a previously scheduled meeting. And Hutto said the incident, arrest and message of forgiveness likely will be a topic at the congregation’s regular Wednesday evening service.

Hutto also confirmed that Stang played the organ for last Sunday’s service, with the presiding bishop in attendance.

Michael Curry in Bean Blossom

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry delivers a sermon April 30 at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Photo: Diocese of Indianapolis, via video

Curry was in Indiana over the weekend to preside at the ordination and consecration of the Right Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as the 11th bishop of the Diocese of Indianapolis, the Episcopal Church’s first black female diocesan bishop. The next day during his sermon at St. David’s, Curry conveyed the message that “love wins.”

“You were here where we needed God’s unconditional love,” Curry told the congregation, according to a news release from the diocese detailing the visit. “My friends, we have a world that is trying to tear itself apart. We have to love it back together.”

Stang had confessed to police two days earlier, according to court documents, which reveal that police identified the organist as a suspect early in their investigation by tracing his location through cell phone records.

On April 28, he told a Brown County sheriff’s detective that he “felt scared and alone because of the election results,” the court documents say. He said he wanted to “mobilize a movement” but had not expected the intense media attention that the vandalism generated. He later told police he regretted his actions.

“I suppose I wanted to give local people a reason to fight for good,” he said in a written statement to police. “I, of course, realize now that this was NOT the way to go about inspiring activism.”

Baskerville-Burrows issued a statement May 3 saying she was saddened by the news.

“This was a hurtful, dishonest and profoundly misguided action that stands against the values of the people this diocese and the Episcopal Church, and we will continue to cooperate with the authorities who are pursuing this case,” the bishop said.

“We are living now in a political climate that is so divisive and highly charged that people from all across the political spectrum are making thoughtless and hurtful choices that they believe are justified by the righteousness of their causes. As people who follow Jesus, we must find a different way.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Comments

  1. Iris Waltersc says:

    This may focus attention on just how misguided anyone can become. That is an important point to consider.
    Frustration over current policies and upheaval do not make this inappropriate action acceptable.

    Am very much in favor of legal and peaceful assembly and demonstrations. We are the people who make this country and this world what it is. We need to take responsibility for making this a more perfect place for all.

    • Ernie Hammel says:

      Iris, Who are WE?….We are the ones who “cling to their guns and religion”? I think that’s what you meant by WE who make this country and this world what it is. .

  2. Bruce Garner says:

    Much attention is of course focused on the incident. But where should our attention be directed? I see this incident as a cry for help by one who felt what so many of us felt after the election: unsafe, betrayed, not knowing who to trust, fearful of our personal safety, wondering about job security, and pretty much other emotion someone who is female, poor, minority or in an oppressed or marginalized community could feel.

    We felt it with good reason. We have seen the systematic dismantling of all kinds of protections for the environment, protections for poor people against what amounts to a form of usury in removing safeguards as a result of our financial meltdown. We have seen attempts to deport and ban individuals based solely on the religious faith they profess. Tomorrow is likely to bring a new Executive Order adversely impacting the civil and human rights of LGBTQ+ people. Is there any wonder why fear might drive someone to commit vandalism? While it probably is a poor way to generate support for a cause, it did get attention.

    So now that we know it wasn’t a hate crime in the traditional sense, will we be gracious and help those feeling threatened overcome their anxieties? Will we work to prevent elected and appointed officials from imposing discriminatory actions on those outcasts that the late Presiding Bishop affirmed would not be outcasts in our church? Or will we go about business as usual and allow those who felt threatened by a “fake crime” to feel threatened by the realities they experience and see each day? Truly: what would Jesus do? WE are Jesus Movement people, so we should know the answer.

    • Bill Louis says:

      Bruce, Oh please! there are no excuses for lack of self control. First you give no examples to support your accusations. If you are having such a difficult time then get some help and learn to deal with it lie I did for the past eight years. Just because you don’t like what someone is doing it doesn’t give you the right to break the law.

    • Timothy Fleck says:

      Bruce, were you ready to characterize the graffiti as a “cry for help” when you thought it came from a Trump supporter, as Mr. Stang intended? Were you willing to make excuses based on the vandal’s fearfulness, sense of betrayal and “pretty much any other emotion” when you believed he was acting in opposition to your own convictions? Do your ends justify his means?
      In fact, this was a hate-crime: hatred for a duly-elected leader who represents a challenge to a particular status-quo. The crime was despicable before and is despicable now, with the aggravating factor of the cynical attempt to stir up hatred and fear. We may forgive Mr. Stang, as we should have forgiven the perpetrator if he had been what he pretended to be. But to make excuses for his behavior because “it did get attention” is a slippery Orwellian slope.

    • Ted Gemberling says:

      Bruce,
      I agree with quite a few of your sentiments, but this is just awful: “While it probably is a poor way to generate support for a cause, it did get attention.” You don’t make the world a better place by being untruthful. Yes, I suppose this made liberals at places like St. David’s feel like heroes for awhile, but now they have to go through the emotional turmoil of knowing this was a false flag, and that a person they knew and trusted had misled them.

    • Ernie Hammel says:

      Bruce, Your thoughts here are rationalization and hypocrisy at its worst.

    • Doug Desper says:

      Bruce — I think that when God spoke “Thou shalt not bear any false witness” there were no qualifiers added such as “Except if you don’t like Donald Trump.” Try as you and other liberal apologists might, there is no excuse for ignoring that most basic relationship command — even when you are disappointed it still applies. It’s a shame that this young man has crippled his reputation and future and I truly hope that he will recover and be able to mature and be a successful person. Meanwhile I question the state of Christian teaching these days. Many educational offerings or sermons center on how one feels about life and how to make a difference in what matters to them. As wonderful as that is, it’s not the starting place. The solid teaching of relating with God and ones neighbor starts with God’s ideal of it as seen in the person of Christ.

  3. Scott Elliott says:

    What a sad coda on an altogether awful episode. But Bp Jennifer’s remarks were pretty close to perfect.

  4. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    A false flag operation of the sort which has become fashionable in our country. I don’t mean to sound unkind (well, maybe I do, just a little!) but if the perpetrators of such acts within the Episcopal Church are guilty in the first instance, responsibility has to be shared with the higher-ups in the church who routinely throw around such words as “racism”, “sexism” and “homophobia” to describe the attitude of anyone with whom they happen to disagree.

    • Keith Patterson says:

      I need help in understanding Mr. Oberdorfer’s comment. So the church is to blame if it calls out sexist, racist, homophobic opinions? Could someone unpack this for me? Free speech aside, when did it become permissible for an employee to deface his or her place of employment?

    • Cynthia Bullard says:

      The information that I have read said that he is a paid employee in the Episcopal Church. This does not mean he is an Episcopalian. I don’t see the connection with ‘the higher ups’ in the Episcopal Church being responsible.

    • Will Cate says:

      More than just “fashionable,” the false-flag, or fake hate-crime, has become accepted modus operandi for the political left. If I was on Vestry @ St. David’s I certainly would be voting for the termination of young Mr. Stang. Actions have consequences.

  5. To me it reads as a piece of very bitter sarcasm, especially if this young man himself should happen to be gay. I think that’s different from a false flag. He should, of course, not have done it; and, having done it, he should have come forward in short order and confessed.

  6. Ernie Martin says:

    The back drop of most of what I have read here is the confusion that loving others in a Godly way means upholding their un-Godly behavior. Christ Rebuked the Behavior. Then Loved the Person. Then Taught Godly Ways. Another way of saying this is to “Speak the Truth in a Loving and Encouraging Way.”

  7. Roger Hamilton says:

    I would have fired him immediately when, as Rector, I found out what he did. There is no excuse for defacing any house of worship.

  8. esteban rodriguez says:

    Left unsaid in this article is that St. Paul’s pointedly left the graffiti remain uncleaned because they thought it served to publicly shame Trump supporters. Now, though, ….
    The church may plead that they were unwitting accomplices in this slander, but they were accomplices all the same and owe the public an unqualified apology.

    • esteban rodriguez says:

      St. David’s, not St. Paul’s.

      • mike geibel says:

        Good point, Esteban. If the graffiti had been pornographic or blasphemous, surely the church leaders would have rushed to have it removed or covered up. Maybe it shows that the best of us are too willing to believe the worst in others with whom we disagree.

    • Tony Oberdorfer says:

      Esteban Rodriguez makes a very good point. It is deliciously ironic that our Presiding Bishop himself unwittingly took part in what was essentially a false flag operation by making a special trip to St. David’s only to discover that the organist perpetrator had been one of St. David’s own.

    • Joan Gundersen says:

      Esteban, Read the actual resaon the church did not immediately remove the graffiti. It had nothing to do with Trump supporters: According to the Episcopal News Service story. “they have left the messages up in hopes of fostering dialogue. ‘We are disappointed that our safe haven has been vandalized but will not let the actions of a few damper our love of Christ and the world. We will continue to live out our beliefs and acceptance of all people and respecting the dignity of every human being,’ reads the statement on their Facebook page.”

      • esteban rodriguez says:

        Joan, you really think they left the graffiti up “in hopes of fostering dialogue”? I think that official statement they put out was specious baloney. They did it to play the martyr and advance a narrative that Trump supporters are bad people.

  9. mike geibel says:

    He is not a “victim” — he is the perpetrator. He lied to the police about his whereabouts and confessed when it was evident he was the prime suspect via incriminating phone records. His “fear” excuse sounds manufactured–it is more likely he was angry at the election results and lashed out to make people believe that racists Trump supporters vandalized the church. Whether he’s gay or straight is immaterial–neither circumstance would excuse his actions.

    The story is now a purely local matter and should not be political fodder for either the Excus-a-holics on the Left or the Hang ’em High-ers on the Right. The DA and local judge will determine the suitable civil penalties (fine and community service?) It is up to the Vestry and Minister to decide whether to continue his employment. He has expressed remorse, even if not coming completely clean, and deserves forgiveness. We have all probably done some foolish things in our lives.

    The lesson learned is that uncontrolled passion and political angst can make us do things we later regret. I pray the public humiliation will not cause these rather senseless transgressions to irreparably tarnish the young man forever. The whole story makes me grateful that some of my own stupid acts when I was young were never made public but known only to God.

  10. Ernie Hammel says:

    Interesting in that millions of USA citizens had the same reaction when Obama was elected with his rhetoric such as “I want to fundamentally change America”, “White Christians who cling to their guns and religion”… speaking about a great many Episcopalians by the way, his 20 year association with rev. Wright, etc… BUT, no where did you see the rioting, violent protesting, graffiti and such un-Christian behavior as you have seen on the far radical left which this organist represents. Once again the far left radicals are so unhinged that they continue to break the law in the name of political discourse. Embarrassing! Enforce the law as if the perpetrator had insulted Obama. This would be front page national news for a week if this had been directed towards Obama when he was pres.

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