An international conference in South Africa this week is bringing renewed attention to the worldwide problem of racism. But many Americans are grappling with racism on an almost daily basis.

If you were to drive southeast out of Washington through the Maryland suburbs and kept going, you just might pass through the small rural community of Lothian in Maryland's Anne Arundel County.

A few weeks ago, someone broke into the non-denominational Rapture church in Lothian, scrawled racist slurs on the walls and either stole or destroyed kitchen and office equipment worth $20,000.

Reverend Craig Coates says worshippers discovered the vandalism when they showed up for a prayer breakfast. "And when they got there they basically found that the church had been broken into and satanic marks had been made in different places on the floors and the walls," he says. "And whoever had done the job had basically made some racist statements as well."

Although some members of his congregation were shocked by the break-in, Reverend Coates was not. He has been expecting trouble for sometime. "I understand we live in a society that is plagued with this. So, in that sense I was not surprised," he says. "It just seemed to be that at that point it was our turn to respond, you know."

The congregation responded by raising money and enlisting volunteers to help with the cleanup.

Among those who offered to help was Michael Keller, one of the leaders of an Anne Arundel County Peace Action group that is committed to fighting racism on a grassroots level. "And we have pledged that whenever there is evidence of hate group activity anywhere within Anne Arundel County, we will, within a one-week period, if some other community organization has not organized something similar, we will respond in a proportional way to the hate group activity," he says.

The break-in at the church in Lothian was one of several racial incidents reported in the county over the past several weeks. Most of the incidents targeted African-Americans. But in one case, police charged three black teenagers with attacking a white woman.

Mr. Keller says his group has been surprisingly busy in recent years countering the efforts of white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. "And in other cases they are very open and brazen," he says. "The Ku Klux Klan has passed out literature openly in public areas, including street corners at which they openly approach motorists who are stopped at traffic lights and handed hate literature. And twice in the time that I have lived here in the city of Annapolis, the Ku Klux Klan held open rallies right at the State House in Maryland."

Mr. Keller says he and his group are committed to speaking out against racism whenever hate groups try to spread their message to the public at large. "Well, the key is not to be silent. Unfortunately, many people feel that the best way to respond to hate groups is just to be quiet and ignore them and hope they go away," he says. "That is exactly what the hate groups want. They like for people to do nothing because it implies that there is agreement with their activities."

As for Reverend Coates and the congregation at the Rapture church, they have forgiven the person or persons behind the break-in. And they have already devised their own strategy to combat racism. "Our plan to battle racism is to continue to be a body of believers that is diverse and integrated," he says. "You know we are not confined to appealing to just African-Americans or Caucasians, that when we work together, and I will be very honest with you, we do not see black and white in our ministry."

Reverend Coates agrees with local law enforcement officials who say that only a few individuals are responsible for racially-motivated hate crimes and that they do not reflect the views of the vast majority of people who live in Anne Arundel County.

But FBI crime statistics indicate that racially motivated hate crimes are more common than most people might assume. In the United States, hate crimes include violations of the law because of race, ethnic background, gender or religious belief.

In 1999, there were more than 7,800 hate crimes reported around the country and more than half of those were racially motivated. Of the 71 hate crimes reported in Anne Arundel County in 1999, police were able to verify 41 racial incidents.