GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The tiny white church has new locks, peepholes and brass plates. While its parishioners pray, the sanctuary is bolted shut and a police officer is now stationed outside. Soon, surveillance cameras will be installed, and the 47-member congregation will participate in active-shooter training.
This is the next chapter for the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which the authorities said was targeted in mid-November. The Gainesville Police charged a 16-year-old white girl with planning a racially motivated knife attack to kill the black worshipers, a plot they said bore eerie similarity to a 2015 massacre at a storied African-American church in Charleston, S.C.
In Gainesville, a small city of about 40,000 residents in the heart of Georgia’s poultry industry, the police chief has urged church members to use low-tech force to protect themselves. They should hurl Bibles or hot coffee, chairs or fire extinguishers, anything, he said, that can be weaponized if they are under attack and cannot safely escape.
“It’s a shame that we live in a world today where we have to protect our institutions of worship, our schools, but evil knows where we are most vulnerable,” Chief Jay Parrish told church leaders during a recent introduction to the active-shooter training. “The lightning bolt got too close this time.”
Faced with a rise in attacks on houses of worship, the Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool, the pastor of Bethel, and other religious leaders across the country are fortifying their buildings and preparing for the possibility of mass shootings. Some have also turned to armed security and organized law enforcement patrols.
Last week, a gunman opened fire during Sunday service at a Texas church, killing two parishioners before an armed member of the church’s volunteer security team fatally shot him. And over the last two years, gunmen have targeted worshipers at synagogues in Poway, Calif., where one person died, and in Pittsburgh, where a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs gunned down 11 people, and at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed and another 20 were wounded.
“Unfortunately, this is what it has come to. We have to be ready to fight back,” said Ms. Rizer-Pool, a retired Army major who has led Bethel for about 18 months. “We are having to get our arms around this idea of praying and praising our God in what is supposed to be a place of peace, but having to be watchful and on the lookout.”
Faith groups have responded to the growing threat of hate crimes and violence, in part, by offering specialized training and producing safety guides. The Council on American-Islamic Relations published a safety manual for religious institutions and began holding training sessions after a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012.
“Our thinking is, if you substitute ‘mosque’ for ‘church’ or ‘synagogue’ or ‘temple,’ the concerns are the same, so we made the guide available to the entire faith community,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the group.
After a gunman stormed the small church in Sutherland Springs in November 2017, a Dallas-area megachurch organized an active-shooter training session, which more than 600 church leaders from across the country attended. Since then, the church and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention have provided training and security assessments at about 150 churches in Texas, Oregon and Missouri. Texas legislators responded, too, by passing laws that allow anyone with a concealed-carry license to bring firearms into churches.
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Source: The New York Times