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St. Petersburg's Allendale United Methodist Church uses vandalism as teaching moment

ST. PETERSBURG — Someone left a message of hate on the sign for the Allendale United Methodist Church late Sunday or early Monday.

The Rev. Andy Oliver said the church decided to respond with love.

The message board that is part of the church sign displayed words of support for Amendment 4, the state ballot measure that would restore voting rights to felons if it passes in November. Church members awoke to find the words "gay pastor" spray painted on the sign.

Soon the graffiti would be flanked in hearts arranged in the colors of a rainbow and another message: "LOVE ALWAYS WINS!"

The St. Petersburg Police Department is investigating the vandalism, said spokeswoman Sandra Bentil.

"This is just one example of the type of hate crime and hate message the LGBT community goes through regularly," Oliver said. "It certainly isn't great our sign got vandalized, but we want to surround that message of hate with a message of love, and that's what we've received since."

Oliver said the office of St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman reached out to the church too.

Allendale United Methodist Church has previously used its marquee board to advocate for its stance on issues and this month had focused on Amendment 4. In July, someone threw a brick through it when it carried a quote from U.S. Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis.

The church faces a regular stream of callers upset with its progressive messaging, Oliver said, but less than those supporting it.

After the sign was vandalized in July, community members raised money to buy a new sign, which is expected to arrive next month. City officials talked to him about installing cameras, he said.

"We want to prevent this in the future, but that's not going to deter us," Oliver said.

They did, however, change the back of the sign to let the vandal know the church would continue to fight for his or her rights, should the individual be arrested:

"Vandalism is a felony," the new message board reads. "That shouldn't take away your vote for life! Vote yes on Amendment 4"

Contact Divya Kumar at Follow @divyadivyadivya.