"Historical use of burning crosses to intimidate people makes this a very serious issue," a police spokesman said.
The leaders of a largely black St. Paul church where a cross was burned Tuesday night said they are saddened but not discouraged by the incident. Police are investigating it as a hate crime.
The idea that the 4-foot-high cross was ignited a day after Martin Luther King Day seems "strange," said Vivian Mite, whose husband, Thomas, is the pastor of the Liberty Temple Church of God in Christ in the West 7th Street neighborhood.
"The burning cross evokes hatred and ignorance. I'm saddened that in 2006 this is going on," Vivian Mite said Wednesday night.
But Mite said she and her husband aren't discouraged. "We're just going to keep on keeping on," she said. "It just means our work isn't done. ... We hope the community will come together."
Officer Pete Crum, a police spokesman, said a witness reported seeing three teenagers running from the area about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.
When police arrived, the wooden cross was charred near the top. No arrests have been made.
"The message that is conveyed is hate," Crum said. "The historical use of burning crosses to intimidate people makes this a very serious issue."
Mite said she and her husband were shocked when they learned about the incident Tuesday. "We're a multicultural church," she said.
The two St. Paul natives, who are both black, started the congregation five years ago in what formerly was a Methodist church. "We started with seven people and now have 75 to 80 people enrolled," she said.
"Thirty percent of our congregation isn't black. ... We have an outreach ministry. We have free barbecues and open houses. We go door to door. We started out as a black congregation, but it's been changing the last three to four months."
Mite said the church has received no threats or harassing phone calls. "The police don't know if this was random or if we were a target," she said.
Mayor Chris Coleman decried the cross-burning in a statement Wednesday.
"This incident is a shameful act of violence against our community. St. Paul has always been defined by its diversity and we have no tolerance for hate crimes," he said.
St. Paul used to have a hate-crimes ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to place, on public or private property, a burning cross or other symbol that aroused anger or fear on the basis of race or religion.
But that was before a 17-year-old male, who was charged under the ordinance for helping burn three crosses in 1990 near the home of a black family on St. Paul's East Side, challenged the ordinance and took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court struck down the St. Paul ordinance as an unconstitutional restraint on free speech. City officials later decided not to draft a new hate-crimes ordinance, choosing to rely instead on state and federal laws to prosecute such acts.
The last noted cross-burning in St. Paul was in 1992, in the yard of a house shared by black students at the University of St. Thomas.