Pastors, security experts reflect on how to keep churchgoers safe
BY PENNY DICKERSON
Fatal shootings in America’s Black churches are not a historical phenomenon.
Alberta Williams King, the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed in 1974 by Marcus Chenault, a lone, Black gunman. “Mama King’’ was murdered while playing the organ in the Ebenezer Baptist Church during a Sunday morning service.
The tragedy occurred in June and – 41 years later in the same month – Dylan Roof, a lone White gunman entered the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and sat through a near hour of Bible study before he unloaded a barrage of bullets that killed nine congregants.
On July 5 in Daytona Beach, a man disrupted Sunday School at Madison Heights Church of God in Christ and attacked Pastor Max Hawkins after reportedly throwing his Bible to the floor and declaring, “I am God.” He was later determined to be Hawkins’ mentally ill nephew who was taken into custody by police.
No one was killed in that Volusia County attack, but in the aftermath of a succession of multiple crimes committed nationwide, the church as a safe place to worship is being re-evaluated.
A.M.E. pastors reflect
From as close as Jacksonville to Volusia County, pastors expressed concerns and solutions regarding church safety.
“This is a different season,” Pastor Mark Griffin of Wyman Chapel A.M.E. Church in Jacksonville, shared with USA Today. “Every church leader has to take a look at their security protocol. We are seeing more violence in the church.”
Griffin leads two churches in two different locations and has said security already exists, but also wonders whether it is adequate.
Pastor Nathan Mugala of Daytona Beach’s Allen Chapel A.M.E. has taken security measures in his church by strategically placing cameras in and around his sanctuary. He additionally has a “Parking Ministry” whose mission is to ensure members safely arrive and leave worship service in addition to directing traffic and safeguarding cars while worship is in session.
“The church is a safe haven for worship,” Mugala told the Daytona Times in a recent interview. “My main emphasis is that we all just have to learn to trust in God to keep us safe.”
Church is a target
The 21st-century church is known for having an abundance of valuable technology equipment and the most important commodity for a burglar – money. Beyond multiple break-ins and internal theft, the church has been a target for both petty crimes and widespread violence leading to death.
Chenault actually sought to kill Alberta King’s husband when he opened fire brandishing two revolvers and screamed, “I’m tired of all this!” He instead shot his wife simply because she was closer and declared he was the “Servant Jacob.”
In a statement, the 23-year-old said he shot Mrs. King because “she was a Christian and all Christians are my enemies.”
Roof was only 21 years old but motivated by racial animus when he committed the Charleston massacre. His crime is preceded by words shared with his childhood friend Joseph Meek Jr. who said in news reports that Roof shared, “Blacks were taking over the world [and] someone needed to do something about it for the White race.”
Church safety initiatives
Keeping the church secure has been a national initiative for decades and initiatives like the Texas-based National Organization for Church Security and Safety Management, Inc. (NOCSSM) trains churches through the country in the areas of security and safety.
President and founder Chuck Chadwick also is the licensed security manager and president of Gatekeepers Security Services. The company’s Gatekeepers Program has put hundreds of armed Gatekeepers in churches across Texas.
“Our mission in our Gatekeepers program is to train these men and women to go toward the sound of the gunfire and stop the violence, and the only way to really do it effectively is through firearms,” said Chadwick.
For a megachurch with a hefty budget, Chadwick’s initiatives are an apt resource. But, according to Brian J. Gallagher, a Maryland-based church safety expert, more than 80 percent of the nation’s churches have less than 100 members. Their budgets cannot afford high-tech training or often the necessary base-level security – an alarm system.
Gallagher adds that churches are what’s known as “soft targets,” meaning they are accessible unlike a university setting, which was Roof’s initial choice but the confessed killer said it proved difficult access.
“Too many churches don’t have alarm systems and many keep their doors unlocked,” stated Gallagher. “I can understand the doors of the church need to be open to the public, but if you have multiple entrances – not every door.’’
Pastors and pistols
Beyond technology, the safety conversation has advanced to the need for church pastors and clergy to also arm themselves with weapons as a form of protection.
“Everybody has a Second Amendment right to be armed with a weapon, but you can’t blanket every church’s security needs across the country,” Gallagher advised. “If you’re holding a gun, it’s for one or two reasons – to take a life or defend someone’s life from being taken. Every pastor is not going to have the necessary training, maturity or law enforcement skill-set to be armed for the varied scenario-based situations,” he added.
Gallagher served as a U.S. Secret Service specialist for 10 years and currently oversees an online resource initiative for churches at www.securityatchurch.com.
“I can say that every megachurch should have armed-security of some sort,” offered Gallagher.
“Every church in an inner city or high crime area should also have an armed response or personnel, but I cannot endorse that security be the pastor. It’s different in each church, every location.”
In last week’s Florida Courier, the Daytona Times’ sister paper, Samuel R. Hayes III reflected on Black Christians’ concerns about armed self-defense. He is a Navy veteran, a certified weapons specialist and the CEO of Caliber Training Group based in Atlanta.
“One could argue that the true essence of Christianity is to defend yourself and the core of your beliefs with righteous indignation when presented with a threat. There’s this ideology in the church that using physical force – up to and including lethal force in an instance like the recent shootings in South Carolina – is bad. Arguably, (that ideology is) against God’s will if you are not armed and properly trained to meet a threat, should you be called on to step into the role of ‘protector,’” Hayes said.
“Discreetly carrying a firearm is a skill-set that you hope you never need. But you’ll be glad you were able to engage a threat responsibly and effectively as a result of your training,” Hayes added.