A west-end Ottawa church with a largely black congregation was spray painted with racist graffiti ahead of a special service honouring Martin Luther King Jr., in what police are calling a hate crime.

The vandalism was painted on an exterior door and wall of Parkdale United Church either late Saturday, Jan. 9, or early Sunday, Jan. 10.

Parkdale United Church

Parkdale United Church has a largely black congregation. (CBC)

It happened shortly after the church posted a sign advertising the special service that took place one week later.

Rev. Anthony Bailey, lead pastor at the church, said the vandals spray painted the word "n--gers," as well as the word "Tupac," presumably a reference to the American rapper who was shot to death in 1996.

"There was a very explicit racist epithet, there was some other symbols we weren't quite sure [of], and then the name in the biggest letters that they could fit on our wall, 'Tupac.'"

"The concerning thing is that this occurred a few days after we put up our sign advertising our Martin Luther King service," Bailey said. "I certainly could only interpret that it was meant to intimidate me, it was certainly directed at me and the congregation."

'Very disturbing'

Bailey said the church, which is celebrating its 85th year, has never experienced such racially-motivated vandalism before.

"Our church is known for standing up for racial reconciliation and bringing people together inter-culturally, so it was disturbing, very disturbing," said Bailey, adding he's the only black United Church minister in Ottawa.

'They attempted to sow hatred and division, and we are responding with love and justice and reconciliation.' - Rev. Anthony Bailey

Members of the congregation also expressed dismay over the graffiti.

"It was very unfortunate that during the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and the amount of non-violent action that he professed, that such an unfortunate incident should have happened," said Faye Posmituk, who's been attending Parkdale United for about a year.

Bailey said the vandalism caused him "personal, emotional distress" because his brother was stabbed to death in a racially-motivated attack in Montreal in 1976.

Bailey said he considered the vandalism a hate crime because the N-word was used. Nevertheless, he said he'd like a chance to sit down and speak with the perpetrators.

"They attempted to sow hatred and division, and we are responding with love and justice and reconciliation," Bailey said. "I would take them to lunch and have a conversation about what has brought them to believe the way they do, and offer them a different perspective about how we ought to treat each other and care for each other."

Police attended MLK service

Ottawa police confirmed Tuesday they're investigating the incident as a hate crime. So far, no arrests have been made.

The area that was vandalized was not in view of surveillance cameras, Bailey said. The church will install one in response to the vandalism, he said.

Police officers attended the Martin Luther King service on Sunday, Bailey said. Police had originally asked him to keep the incident to himself because they were concerned about copy cats, but news of the vandalism eventually leaked out.

He said the church has received letters of "tremendous support" from across the country and people have offered donations to help cover the cost of cleaning up the graffiti.

"This community of Ottawa is better than this," Bailey said.

Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi condemned the graffiti in a tweet.