Some Black Churches Allow Armed Congregants, Lock Doors During Services to Defend Against Potential Shootings

Mourners at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed by Dylann Roof. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty)
Mourners at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed by Dylann Roof. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty)

In the age of Trump and Dylann Roof, some church leaders are prepared to take drastic steps to defend against potential shootings.

Before we knew a young white man named Dylann Roof existed, my wife and I would get a good chuckle out of a story from Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Georgetown, South Carolina. It’s the church where my wife grew up, where we said our vows in the summer of 1998, where we recently held a funeral service for her 82-year-old father.

The initials stand for African Methodist Episcopal, a denomination founded by a former slave tired of being discriminated against by white Christians. In the two centuries since its establishment, it has grown into roughly 7,000 congregations along with associated colleges and theological institutions. The World Council of Churches has estimated its membership at roughly 2.5 million.

The area surrounding Mt. Zion is awash in history. It’s an hour’s drive from where, in 1861, Citadel cadets fired upon Fort Sumner, kicking off the Civil War. It’s about 15 minutes away from a steel mill that has been shuttered and restarted multiple times over the past decade, where some of the white supervisors in the 1970s were illiterate and required their lower-paid black employees to read the safety instructions on dangerous equipment. It’s tucked away in a pine forest containing dozens of modest, well-kept homes owned by a mostly black population. There are also former plantations where enslaved Africans once toiled, properties still owned by wealthy white families who rely upon black labor to keep them operational and clean.

That’s where, maybe a decade ago, a strange, disheveled white man decided to show up unannounced during a Sunday morning service, taking a seat near the back. His presence caused a stir and eventually led to someone calling the police. Just the sight of him was out of the norm, upsetting.

It was just a funny, quirky story we laughed about many times—until Roof showed up at Emanuel A.M.E., about an hour away in Charleston, and slaughtered nine black people in an attempt to start a race war.

Now when I sit down with black pastors in South Carolina and they tell me stories about being unnerved by strange white people (and sometimes by white people who aren’t all that strange) showing up at their churches, I don’t laugh. I listen. They have serious concerns: Should they install security? Lock the doors? Or even allow guns inside their places of worship?

“I cannot speak for churches of other ethnicities, but as the leader of a black church, I am very concerned,” Reverend James Cokley of Cherry Hill Missionary Baptist Church told me. “Since the Charleston nine were murdered, our church has installed complete security with video cameras, recorders, etc., because we have had individuals walk in and sit down but in the middle of worship, they will get up and walk out.”

Cokley has been a pastor longer than Roof has been alive, beginning 36 years ago when “we locked the church simply to keep people from wandering in.” Now, he says, “No one is turned away… But we do extra surveillance on those who are present. Our members are not totally at ease with visitors not accompanying persons we know.”

Other churches have taken active measures. Reverend Joe Washington, of Hope Church in Conway, has considered plainclothes armed security officers, a uniformed police officer, and other measures. He settled, uneasily, on a few tactics. An usher essentially stands guard at the church entrance during the service and often locks the front and side door (while remembering to warmly greet members and visitors). Washington urged his daughter, who is also a preacher, and his wife, a well-known doctor in the area, to get trained in shooting. They initially balked at the idea, as well as at the notion of having guns in the church. But at least two concealed-carry permit holders come armed every Sunday.

“I never know who they are, and we don’t announce it,” Washington said. “I really struggled with it. The congregation is my first concern. I don’t know how that sounds, but it’s real. We need to be able to neutralize a shooter.”

When he was a pastor in a tough part of New York, he understood there were dangers—he had to tell drug dealers to leave the kids in the church alone—but “it didn’t occur to me that some imbecile would come and shoot up the church.”

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SOURCE: Issac J. Bailey