Rev. Richard Sibert stands at the pulpit of Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church which was vandalized in September. Photo by Ashley Benkarski

By Ashley Benkarski

MURFREESBORO, TN — Four teenage boys who pleaded guilty to vandalism and burglary of a predominantly black church have started their probationary periods as handed down in juvenile court recently.

Judge Donna Scott Davenport released the boys from house arrest so long as they pay restitution and court costs, perform public service work, and exhibit “good and lawful behavior.” The juveniles did not face hate crime charges at the request of Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church leaders.

The teens, age 14-16, pleaded guilty Dec. 11 to burglary, vandalism over $1,000, and theft under $1,000. Davenport said each of the juveniles should perform 50 hours of public service work at the church, pay of $250 in restitution, and $62.50 in court costs.

Other than while working at the church, the boys are to avoid contact with the church or each other. One of the boys asked to complete his public service work at a different time than the other three so as to avoid contact with his co-defendants. Davenport agreed and permitted him to complete an additional 25 hours of public service work at the church in lieu of payment of restitution. He’s too young to have a job and does not live with either parent. The Rev. Richard Sibert, pastor of the church, attended the sentencing hearing and agreed to arrange the boy’s work to satisfy both requests.

All four teens were to begin their service work Saturday, Dec. 15 by assisting in custodial work and removal of debris from church grounds. After that, the juveniles will complete their hours at the church’s discretion. Sibert said there will be more work assigned to the juveniles.

The sentencing comes in response to the racially-charged actions of the teenage defendants in September which included: desecration of Bibles in the church with KKK scrawled on some pages; messages of white supremacy written on the walls;theft of video equipment; and other acts of vandalism.

While all of the defendants received the same sentencing, two were granted diversions since they had no prior offense. However, they must honor conditions of their probation as monitored by the Department of Children’s Services. Davenport told the teens to continue to obey school and house rules, and to avoid getting in any further legal trouble else they end up in front of her again.

Sibert said he felt that justice had been served: “We wanted them to be aware of what they had done, and that we’re willing to move on, forgive and move on, and hope they realize that they were granted a great opportunity.”

However, he has concerns that recruitment by hate groups may have prompted the teens to commit the crimes. And he asks what other kinds of groups — and how many — are recruiting in schools here. He also says people need to know what to do if violence occurs at their places of worship.

Furthermore, Sibert hopes the incident at his church, as well as other hate-motivated crimes that have occurred both locally and nationally, will cause people to be more aware that these are not isolated incidents, and this type of thinking is still prevalent in this community.

“This being the Bible Belt … we shouldn’t have stuff like this. It should be banished. It shouldn’t even be part of our thinking,” Sibert said. “When I learned that there was about 38 hate groups here in Tennessee, it’s the Bible Belt, but yet they’re number two in hate crimes. That is ridiculous. How serious are we? Is it just a name? What is really behind that?”