LONGVIEW — When R.A. Long established Longview Community Church in the 1920s, he wanted it to be a truly community church, welcoming people from all Christian traditions.
When visitors step in, though, they encounter a symbol that people now associate with terror, though it once was a revered sign for several faiths. About 60 floor tiles emblazoned with swastika-style crosses are interspersed with the red tiles in the church’s narthex, or entrance.
“Some folks wander in and ask, ‘Is this the swastika church?”’ Pastor John Williams said. About once a year someone paints swastika graffiti on the church’s exterior.
The tiles have been part of the Gothic-style church for nearly 90 years, but a recent remodeling project put the congregation at odds about keeping the tiles.
Some members want to remove the swastika tiles, which they say is a reminder of the horrors of Nazi Germany (although the Nazi swastika is oriented differently). On the other side, members do not want to strip the building of its history. The swastika tiles are original to the church, which was built in 1925, eight years before Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933.
The debate is similar to many raging around the world in cases where modern sentiments of political correctness clash with monuments to discredited or now-reviled people or causes. In southern states, for example, people are demanding removal of statues of Confederate heroes. At their core, these debates frame a central question: Should parts of history be expunged because they’re distasteful, even horrifying?
At Longview Community Church, the conflict also mirrors the church’s ongoing effort to balance tradition with modernity.
Nowadays, contemporary service includes music with drums and keyboards, but the instruments are stored under blankets to remain inconspicuous. When the narthex was expanded last year to accommodate a new elevator, the church commissioned an artist to replicate the original light fixtures.
The addition of the elevator sparked the swastika debate. Engineers discovered cracks in a 14-square-foot section of tiling in the doorway between the entrance and the narthex. Some church members thought that if the church must replace the tiles, why not remove the swastikas?
Last year the church’s 25-member board voted to remove them, Williams said. But a wave of opposition made it delay the decision to get more opinions from the congregation, he added.
Known as fylfot cross, the swastikas are one of four variations of the Christian cross found in the church’s entryway. The ancient symbol was seen as a sign of good fortune in Buddhism and Hinduism. Single swastikas began to appear in southeastern Europe about 7,000 years ago, according to the BBC.
Hitler appropriated the symbol and inverted it so that the bent “s” structures face a reverse direction from the Christian fylfot cross. However, most casual observers don’t notice the difference.
“At a certain point perception becomes reality, even if it is incorrect,” Williams said.
Williams and others fear the church could be sending the wrong message, especially to visitors. “If you have 600 people in here for a concert, I don’t know how many will see that and never want to come back,” he said.
The church has recently held two town hall meetings. Only about 50 people attended out of the 700-member plus congregation, and most spoke against the change.
Beyond preserving the church’s history, some opponents questioned the cost of replacing the tiles and wondered if the church would have to change every time someone is offended, he said.
The negative pushback likely means the church probably will forgo removing the tiles. Williams expects the board to reverse its earlier decision within the next couple of months.
Williams himself supports removing the tiles, but he says it’s not worth dividing the congregation.
“That would break my pastor’s heart,” he said.
It’s possible the issue could resurface under a different pastor and a different board, he said. And at least one question lingers, he said: “How do we protect history but make sure we are lasting into history?”