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Years after Charleston church shooting, houses of worship balance hospitality and safety

  • Updated

Four years after a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers who welcomed him into their Bible study, Charleston area churches are striving to strike a balance between ramped-up security and open-door accessibility.

The June 2015 deadly shooting an international conversation about safety in sanctuaries. Though a handful of churches were employing off-duty police officers prior to the Emanuel AME Church attack, several have since hired off-duty law enforcement for Sunday morning worship and nighttime Bible studies, along with updating security surveillance systems and active-shooter training to protect themselves in places of worship. 

Those affected mainly have been minority groups assembling in synagogues, mosques and historically African-American churches, whose personal safety and property have been targeted by far-right white extremists.

For many congregations, it has been a challenge to take necessary precautions while maintaining a hospitable environment.

St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, a congregation located a few blocks from Emanuel AME Church, hired an off-duty officer shortly after the mass shooting. The Rev. Eric Childers, pastor of St. Matthew's, said security issues can be divisive since some church members feel it sends an unwelcoming message. The action raised concerns within his congregation, he said.

Ultimately, church members decided that uniformed law enforcement would act as a deterrent, but the officer would patrol outside the sanctuary.

“We initially asked the officer to be visible but invisible," Childers said.

Mt. Zion AME Church on Glebe Street bolstered security efforts as well. Ushers, the first to greet guests as they enter the sanctuary for worship, were trained to identify suspicious persons, such as those who choose to sit in the balcony though there are many available pews on the ground floor, said the Rev. Kylon Middleton.

The multi-ethnic congregation has kept its doors open to the community, actively recruiting parishioners of different races and backgrounds. Middleton, a close friend of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those killed at Emanuel, regularly has engaged in gun violence reform initiatives, prompting many to send him hate mail and death threats, he said.

But this hasn't deterred Middleton and Mt. Zion from serving the community. The church hosts several community events, including public discussions on racism.

"We can’t be afraid to open our doors and so skeptical that we miss opportunities to connect with people," Middleton said.

In North Charleston, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church's 1,500-member congregation had a security team that was "pretty relaxed" before the Emanuel tragedy, said A.A. Williams, who heads the church's security team.

Now, a 14-member team that includes retired law enforcement and military members helps keep the sanctuary safe, and the church has plans to update its video surveillance.

The police department encourages churches to implement in-house safety measures. Law enforcement adds an extra layer of protection, but ultimately, the department can't station an officer at every house of worship, Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Jerome Taylor said.

Some small churches can't afford security. The pay rate for off-duty Charleston police officers is $30 per hour. Congregations who can't afford to hire an officer still can  ask the department for increased patrol, Taylor said.

Locking side doors during worship services, updating security surveillance system and creating an "all hazard" plan that outlines steps to be taken in case of an emergency are essential, he said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also offers materials that help organizations guard against violent perpetrators.

Members should be trained to look out for suspicious activity, such as guests with backpacks. If there's any reason to believe danger looms, parishioners should contact law enforcement.

“You can’t be too cautious," Taylor said. "If it doesn’t look right to you, and you are very familiar with the environment, it's not right. ... If you see something that’s not right, say something.”

Some congregations are careful not to overreact, noting that safety and hospitality go hand in hand and many houses of worship receive homeless people simply seeking food or a place to stay.

At St. Matthew's, ushers are trained to engage in conversations with strangers. If someone in the church behaves in a manner that warrants concern, that's an opportunity to go talk to them, said Paul Visentin, who heads the church's security task force.

“Most of the time, you’re going to find out your suspicions are unfounded," he said.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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