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CHURCH PRAYS FOR VANDALS

Three boys, ages 12 and 14, are accused of causing expensive damage, and stealing.

Four days after the Shady Hills United Methodist Church was vandalized, Pastor Christopher Schmidt asked his congregation to bow their heads and pray for the three boys accused of the crime.

"We pray for healing in their own lives of whatever would drive them to destruction," he said in the opening prayer at the first Sunday service since the break-in. "We pray for them. We pray for us. We pray for this community."

Pasco County sheriff's deputies say that two 14-year-olds and a 12-year-old used a baseball bat Wednesday to break through a glass door in the shape of a cross at the church on Greenglen Lane.

Once inside, the boys wreaked havoc, officials said, breaking picture frames, spraying shattered glass through the rooms. They tossed books off shelves and smashed a coffeepot.

The boys broke a small television and a VCR in the nursery where children used to watch videos, officials said. They stole children's toys.

The vandals also made off with some cash and food intended for the needy, as well as all the keys to the church's buildings. The Sheriff's Office said damage was thousands of dollars.

The three boys, all from Shady Hills, were arrested Friday. They are also accused of vandalizing a church at 17505 Shady Hills Road two weekends ago, followed by Bible Baptist Church at 15901 Little Ranch Road on Tuesday night.

The Times is not identifying the boys because of their ages. Each faces three felony charges of burglary to a business and criminal mischief to achurch.

Schmidt found out about the vandalism to his church about 6 a.m. Thursday.

"I was ticked off, I was angry," he told the congregation Sunday morning.

"But I say to you: Love your enemies. And pray for those who persecute you."

According to church staff, two of the boys attended Boy Scout meetings on the church's premises. They were described as fun and easygoing.

"I never would have expected that out of them," said Denise Watson, the church's administrative assistant.

One boy came by to apologize after the incident, she said.

"I gave him a big hug and told him he made a mistake and we would go from there," Watson said.

Shady Hills United Methodist Church has a food bank and feeds hot meals to about 50 senior citizens every day, as well as gives them frozen meals to take home. The church also has a thrift store and collects toys, clothes and food to give to needy families.

Since the incident, the community has flooded the church with donations of cash, food and supplies.

Thursday, church members got to work cleaning up the damage as soon as officials had finished their investigation.

"By that afternoon, you would have been hard pressed to know anything happened," Schmidt said Sunday morning as he prepared for his service.

The night of the break-in, a 30-gallon fish tank in the fellowship hall was smashed. Of the 15 fish inside, one somehow survived.

Church members named him Miracle. He has a new home with a member of the congregation.

"That fish just symbolized us," Schmidt told worshipers Sunday morning. "You can knock us down. But you're not gong to knock us out."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

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