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Salem church service tightens Zoom services after racist video attack

A Salem church is holding its first service with extra security measures Sunday, a week after its virtual gathering was disrupted by racial slurs and images of a burning cross, according to police and the church.

Salem police confirmed Saturday that they are investigating a “zoombombing” incident at the Tabernacle Church on April 19 and have been in contact with the FBI.

The Rev. Joseph Amico said a member of the congregation was about to address the 60 to 70 people who had joined the Zoom service to invite them to make baked goods for a local homeless shelter, when multiple unknown users blitzed the meeting’s moderator with meeting permission requests, and eventually took control of the call.

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In a video of the call, shared with the Globe, the image of Amico in the pulpit was abruptly replaced by a video of the Klu Klux Klan burning a cross, while a song played using a racial epithet.

“We’re getting bombed,” the preacher, Holly Brauner, said in the recording, as a moderator tried to get what appeared to be three ill-intentioned users off the call. One was visible, a white man wearing a bandana over his mouth and dancing to the song in a desk chair. In about a minute, the Zoom meeting was ended.

“I think at first everyone was just in shock,” Amico said in a phone interview Saturday. “And then people were horrified by the images and what they were hearing."

According to Robert Trestan, the New England director of the Anti-Defamation League, hundreds of incidents like the one in Salem have been reported all around the country, as COVID-19 moves most gatherings online.

“What’s really troubling is people are really going out of their way to disrupt these people meetings virtually,” he said in a phone interview.

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Locally, a Jewish student group was on a call with a White House official when the meeting was “bombed” earlier this month and a Chinese class at a Newton high school was also targeted, he said, two of “well over a dozen” such complaints in the state.

Another local pastor, the Rev. Laura Everett, said on Twitter she was also affected by an attack earlier in the month, and blamed Zoom for the vulnerabilities of its product.

“I’m trying to pray online with a wounded people during a freaking pandemic. I hate how anxious I feel about logging in to @zoom_us after I got #Zoombombed. The doors of the Church should be open to every weary soul. I’m trying to do my job. I need Zoom to do theirs," she said.

Nothing like this has happened in the five years that Amico has been a minister at the Protestant congregation, which traces its roots back to 1629, he said.

Amico, who grew up in Saugus, said the closest thing to it was when he was a minister at a predominantly gay congregation in the Midwest when protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church, which the Anti-Defamation League has called a “virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group," arrived outside the door during a service.

“We went out on back steps and sang gospel hymns and asked them to come in,” Amico said.

But on Sunday, there was nothing he could do. “They’re not people that you can reason with.”

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Instead, the predominantly white, middle-class congregation quickly started a new Zoom call and went back to worshiping, including a prayer for those that disrupted the service, he said.

And Zoom services will continue, Amico said, protected by a password that feels slightly antithetical to the openness of the church he ministers to.

“There [is] always going to be evil in the world or those that want to cause problems and have issues,” he said. “We have to do the best we can to be who we are and not worry about them.”


Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com.