ASHTABULA TOWNSHIP — A man trying to make a positive change in the community has recently found his property on the receiving end of racially-motivated acts of vandalism.

The Rev. James Lyons purchased the former Lincoln Elementary School building, 1501 E. 31 St., in June and he is in the process of renovating it to house a nondenominational christian ministry. Vandals have repeatedly hit the property and left behind graffiti depicting racial slurs. The damage is estimated in the thousands of dollars, according to a police report.

Lyons filed a report with the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office Sunday regarding the inappropriate graffiti sprayed all over the walls inside the building. The slurs include derogatory terms aimed at African Americans and a swastika, Lyons said.

The vandals also spray-painted sexual comments and images in the building including dozens of drawings of male genitalia, he said.

Lyons believes the vandalism is a form of racial intimidation and that the acts show a pattern of racial targeting. There were things left behind beyond the graffiti which appear to have been a reference to lynching, he said. 

People have seen him working around the property lately and he believes the acts of vandalism are being used to send a message. The building has seen vandalism for years, Lyons said, but it appears to have escalated and turned to a common theme since he purchased the building.

The vandalism is not only an insult, Lyons said, it is a hate crime.

“They took black paint and smeared it across the floor, took a black extension cord and wrapped it around the door knob that I use to go in and they hung a barrel from the ceiling,” Lyons said. “They are trying to make a statement.”

Lyons said he has been a minister for years and he has traveled all over the world to minister. A native of Ashtabula who graduated in 1978, Lyons said he recently moved back to the area after living in Columbus for 33 years.

Upon his return Lyons said he was surprised to see what the city has become, because when he left it was full of life. In talking to residents of the neighborhood where his church will be, Lyons said he has learned how many have been victims of burglaries, break-ins and robberies.

“I’m a son of this city who has returned to see if I can make a positive difference,” Lyons said. “I’m here to do as much good as I can do in my hometown.”

Despite encountering such vandalism, Lyons said he hopes that if the perpetrators are found it can lead to him having a discussion with them about their actions which will lead to a change in their ways. That is what ministry is about, he said.

“By love and kindness you draw people from a place that is not good into a place of promise and goodness,” he said.

A deputy found spray paint cans in the building, as well as discarded tea bottles taken from a refrigerator in the building, and DNA samples from the items were collected for analysis.

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