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Pastor experiences racial threats, cross burning

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Dec. 13, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The Rev. Robert Utley

The Rev. Robert Utley is recovering from a heart attack after finding a burning wooden cross and noose on his front porch Dec. 10.

Utley, pastor of Clark United Methodist Church, McMinnville, Tenn., reported hearing someone banging on his door shortly after midnight. When he investigated, he found a small wooden cross on a stack of newspapers burning on his porch. On his gutter a thin white rope had been tied into a noose.

The Rev. Daniel M. Hayes, a close friend and mentor, said the shock of the incident sent Utley to the hospital, where doctors determined he had suffered a small heart attack. Hayes is pastor of Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn.

Police are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime. Nashville Metro Police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford said a note left at the scene contained "threats of a racial nature" toward Utley and a co-worker. Utley is a supervisor at Caremark, a pharmaceutical services provider. He is a resident of Davidson County.

"There is some thought that the incident may be related to his work (at Caremark), but that is still under investigation," Mumford said.

Hayes said he also thought the incident was related to Utley's job at Caremark. "He and a couple of other people at work received white envelopes containing white powder a month ago," he said.

Hayes describes Utley as a "very generous, very giving man."

Bishop Richard Wills Jr.

"We decry any form of racism and violence against other people," said Bishop Richard Wills Jr., episcopal leader of the Memphis and Tennessee Annual (regional) Conferences.

"I have a zero tolerance for racism or gender bias against any of our churches or any of our people. This act was so blatant and easy to see. My experience is that racism is still around but has grown more subtle and harder to identify," he added.

"This is a terrible thing to be happening in this day and time," Hayes said. "We have to look at different ways of venting our frustrations and not through hatred and not through any means of sending messages of this nature. This kind of thing is not of God and is not something God's people will tolerate."

Wills noted that several superintendents and laity in leadership roles will be at Lake Junaluska, N.C., this weekend for a training event on diversity.

"We are trying to make sure all people in leadership are aware of the importance and values of diversity and those forces which try to block our efforts to be God's people in an imperfect world."

* Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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