EL CAJON — When spray-painted swastikas and other graffiti were discovered at their churches one recent morning, members of two Eastern Catholic communities didn’t wallow in despair.
Instead, parishioners of St. Peter’s Chaldean Cathedral and Our Mother of Perpetual Help Syriac Catholic Parish, both located in El Cajon, almost immediately sprang into action to repair the damage.
Rather than responding to hate with more hate, priests and lay faithful at both churches also have expressed concern for the eternal salvation of those responsible and are praying for them.
“Our parishioners are responding in a very Christian and charitable way,” Father Daniel Shaba, parochial vicar of St. Peter’s Chaldean Cathedral, told The Southern Cross.
Father Shaba said he had felt “utter shock” when he saw what the vandals had done to the doors, windows, walls and the concrete outside the cathedral’s entrance. The church’s edifice had been defaced by offensive symbols, such as swastikas, as well as politically charged phrases like “BLM” [Black Lives Matter], “White Power” and “Biden 2020.”
Although the Chaldean Catholic Church, based in Iraq, has endured persecution for centuries in its homeland, Father Shaba said this was the first time the local cathedral had ever been the victim of such an attack.
As parochial vicar, Father Shaba knew what it was to feel responsibility for a church and to worry about the many potential problems on a parish campus, but until the recent incident, vandalism had not factored into his list of worries.
“These are the things you see on the news,” he said, “and it was really surreal to have to go through this with our community.”
But, at the same time, the recent ordeal also showed “how tight-knit we are as a community.”
After the news broke, many reached out to the cathedral with phone calls and text messages, and parishioners as well as other East County residents simply showed up to see how they could help.
“It was a beautiful thing,” Father Shaba said.
Volunteers worked for about three or four hours on Sept. 26 to reverse the damage, removing the graffiti as best they could. One parishioner, who owns a power washing company, applied his trade to cleaning the swastikas off of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows.
“The world anticipates a typical aggressive response from those who undergo persecution,” said Father Shaba, “but as faithful Catholics, we approach it in a different lens; and that lens is the cross. Focusing on the cross allows us to offer any sufferings we may encounter to Christ.”
Despite parishioners’ hard work, they were unable to remove all traces of the vandalism. Father Shaba said that more extensive restoration work will be required.
Among other things, he said, the cathedral’s sturdy, old, wooden doors will probably have to be sanded down or maybe even replaced, the stained-glass windows will likely have to be replaced as well, and more must be done to remove the lingering stains from the spray paint on the concrete outside the entrance.
At Our Mother of Perpetual Help Parish, swastikas were spray-painted on one of the church walls. Parishioners responded with the same generous spirit as their counterparts at St. Peter’s. They volunteered on Sept. 26 to repair the damage at no cost to the parish.
“In the church, we are one family. When we need help, everybody comes to give time,” said the pastor, Msgr. Emad Hanna Al-Shaikh, who expressed appreciation for the many parishioners, including youth group members, who joined together to remove the graffiti within hours.
Two days after the graffiti incident, Our Mother of Perpetual Help was victimized a second time when a collection box beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary was broken and donations inside were stolen. Msgr. Al-Shaikh estimates that there might have been about $150 in the collection box at the time of the theft.
The monsignor said the collection box has been targeted on perhaps six previous occasions. But this time, it was damaged much more than it had been in the past. However, like the graffiti, the collection box also was generously repaired at no charge.
Msgr. Al-Shaikh has encouraged his parishioners to pray for the people who have vandalized the church.
“They need a lot of prayer,” he said.
To those who broke into the collection box, he offers a reminder that the parish is willing to assist anyone who is struggling because of a lack of money or food. They need only ask.
“No need to break the box for a couple dollars,” he said.
Father Shaba also has a message for those who attacked the cathedral. Focusing less on the physical damage they caused and more on the damage to their own souls, he said, “It wasn’t worth it. Repent.”