When the Rev. Dr. Sunny Farley walked into Tyler First United Methodist Church on Saturday afternoon she found a broken window, dog feces and a vandalized altar.

Farley, who serves as the church’s pastor, also noticed filing cabinets opened with items scattered on the floor, kitchen tools left on the kitchen floor and that intruders helped themselves to mashed potatoes and noodles in the kitchen.

Tyler First United Methodist Church is one of two churches that intruders targeted this past weekend. Another church, Asbury United Methodist Church, was protected from vandalism thanks to a security system.

“When I got here, I opened the door and it was unlocked, so I was sort of surprised,” Farley said Thursday as dozens of churches, church members and pastors gathered for prayer and clean-up.

Members of the congregation scrambled to gather cleaning supplies and tackled room by room, upstairs, downstairs and the surrounding buildings, including nurseries, classrooms and storage rooms.

The more she walked through the building, she realized there was stuff everywhere and a giant mess.

“In our kitchen, all the utensils from all the drawers were lying on the floor. Someone had made mashed potatoes in the microwave, someone had made cups of cocoa, they spilled drinks everywhere, there was trash, and clearly some kind of animal that was in here, like a dog perhaps,” she said. “The floors were wet and muddy. I started going room to room and really just found the same scenario in each and every room. There was something askew in every single part of this church.”

She felt heartbreak as she looked through the beloved church and the broken items throughout the building.

Farley, who has been pastor of the church since February, said the church has been involved in the community since its doors opened in 1951.

“This church has been here for a long time and has done a lot of great ministry in the community and it’s been hard. We’ve been through COVID, just like everyone else, we had the snowpocalypse and had problems with plumbing. This is a church that just really just wants to survive, and not just survive, but thrive,” Farley said.

She said every little thing that happens to the church is difficult to overcome. Church members recently experienced another heartbreak when their former pastor died about two years ago.

“This church is so resilient. They’ve come through a lot of hardship. They’ve had a lot of adversities, but they are solid people of faith and they’ve shown it once again in this circumstance. They’ve come out, they prayed and they’re going to work hard,” Farley said.

Farley said she and the church members are all excited because many people went out of their way to help them.

“What I believe someone meant for evil, has turned around and something good has come about. People come together and have helped us and made things better. We’re not going to be brought down by what has happened to us,” she said.

Farley said she contacted the Tyler Police Department after noticing it was a case of vandalism. Police arrived at the scene to search the building and make sure no one was still on the property. On Monday, she said crime scene detectives arrived to dust for fingerprints and talked to neighbors to search for witnesses.

Farley said detectives obtained video surveillance from a nearby convenience store.

“All we know from the video that I could tell is that it was obviously one person on a scooter and he had some of our stuff, so we really don’t have a lot more information to a description, we just know it looks like one person,” she said.

Farley said if it really was one person who caused all the damage, that was incredible. “This is a phenomenal job of destroying our church,” she said.

Sunday church services were delayed until the following week as police suggested leaving everything as-is was until officers could look into the incident.

“We will be back in service this Sunday,” Farley said. “We have worship at 11:30 and we’re super excited, we’ll be going strong. If anybody wants to come, they can come and see how much we’ve accomplished since this happened.”

Although the intruder left a big mess for the church to clean up, Farley said all of their hearts go out to the person who committed the crime.

“Obviously, they’re in a bad place. Our prayers are with them and we hope that maybe their lives will be transformed in some way, shape or form so that this isn’t their life. We forgive them and we know God will forgive them, too, but it is what it is. Here we are,” she said.

Linda Wallace, a church member for 25 years, was cleaning the altar with her grandchild Thursday afternoon. The altar was damaged with an office chair that Farley believes was taken from the pastor’s office and thrown into the Lord’s Table — a sacred area used for communion on the altar.

Just as all members of the church and the pastor, Wallace worked with sweat on her forehead as she picked up items of the communion thrown all over the floor. She grabbed the cloths draped over the Lord’s Table to wash at home.

Farley said the cross on the altar was also knocked down.

“It’s one thing to mess up anything that’s in the office but it’s another thing to mess up anything that’s sacred to us, like the altar and the Lord’s Table,” Farley said.

When she heard about what happened and later saw the destruction, Wallace said she felt sadness in seeing her home in the shape that it was.

“I was kind of disheartened at first, but after talking to pastor, she kind of lifted my spirits and I prayed over it and God has shown me that there’s a reason for everything that happens and it’s going to be much better in the future,” she said.

Wallace noted what the church went through when their pastor died and how grateful they were when Farley finally took over.

“I think it’s going to be a new beginning for us,” Wallace said, adding she’s grateful for those who showed up to help clean the church.

Farley said the same night that the incident occurred at their church on Woodlawn Street, Asbury United Methodist Church was also targeted.

However, when church fires were happening in Tyler about 10 years ago, Asbury United Methodist installed a security system to help protect them from intruders. Thanks to that alarm system, Farley said the intruder was scared away after attempting to break in and ran off.

“It’s sad when we have to think about protecting our churches. It just seems like that should be off limits, but it’s not. Nothing is off limits anymore, nothing surprises me. But we’re strong and the strength of the community is going to shine forth,” Farley said.

Tyler First United Methodist Church is in need of cleaning supplies or any donations to help repair damages made to the church. To donate, contact Farley at 903-574-1309.

The church has services on the first and third Sunday of the month for worship at 11:30 a.m., and on other Sundays, they offer Bible studies and Sunday school.

Farley cited Romans 8:28, which talks about things working together for the good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.

“I feel like everything is going to somehow work out together for the good. I’m just clinging to that. That’s all we have,” she said.


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Bilingual Multimedia Journalist

I cover COVID-19 and health in the East Texas area for Tyler Morning Telegraph, the Longview News-Journal and Tyler Paper Español. Stephen F. Austin State University alumna. For story ideas, email me at rtorres@tylerpaper.com.