The Charleston church massacre brought the issue of security in Black churches to the forefront. Here’s what some churches are doing to meet the challenge of securing their holy spaces.
BY KARSCEAL TURNER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
On the evening of June 17, 21-year old White supremacist Dylann Roof casually walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., clearly intent on shooting Black people. He killed nine, including the pastor.
In wake of the Charleston massacre, has anything changed as far as Black church security is concerned?
Bishop Victor T. Curry, senior pastor of New Birth Baptist Church located in Opa-Locka (Miami-Dade County), told the Miami Herald that the shooting “should have shaken this nation to its core.” New Birth sits on a 13.8-acre campus with a sanctuary that seats thousands every Sunday.
“We do what we have always done, we turn to God in prayer and we keep praying, and we keep praying and we keep praying and we keep doing what we can do.”
Security in place
Curry surely prays. But he also protects himself and his flock. He’s had a security force in place for years in the various churches he’s pastored, including plainclothes security seated with the congregation.
New Birth is not the only church that had “hardened” security measures in place, even before Charleston.
Dr. Charles A. Harper, III is pastor of Paradise Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. Harper said his congregation of approximately 500 members has had security plans and measures in place for years. Those measures have been upgraded since the mass shooting.
“Our security plan entails members of our congregation and staff who are prior military and law enforcement. They are well-trained and take care of our security,” he explained.
Preaching while packing
Harper − an avid Second Amendment supporter who has possessed a concealed weapons permit for 15 years − revealed that he once carried a firearm to church, but has stopped due to the security measures the church implemented.
“I once carried until the security team was put in place,” he said.
Other measures Paradise has instituted include closed-circuit television (CCTV), border fencing, and a heightened sense of awareness among churchgoers.
“We have CCTV and have ability to see everywhere,” Harper acknowledged. “The CCTV operation was implemented to protect the church from copper and air conditioning thieves who steal from homes and businesses in the area. Someone is always watching.
“In addition, we have metal fences with razor wire. This was all in effect before the incident in Charleston. That event really raised the awareness of the congregation.
“Atlanta mandates that we as a church enact security measures because of car break-ins. We’ve reviewed and made adjustments since then,” he added.
Harper said the congregation at Paradise feels safe and secure.
“They have sensed a heightened sense of security since the Charleston incident. They have observed our security staff in key points in the building that weren’t as evident before. In business meetings, we speak on security and awareness. This is obvious to the people in the congregation. The way that we have people posted at entrances and exits is such that no one can just slip in,” he said.
“I’m a Second Amendment person who believes in the right to bear arms. The ultimate responsibility lies with us as a church staff. We watch and pray, but we will respond accordingly.
“Charleston was unfortunate, but it’s heightened awareness. We’re glad to protect our people. I feel a lot better myself about the measures we’ve taken,” he added.
Bearing the armor
Another pastor confidently uses “armor bearers” for church security. She also possesses a concealed weapons permit for her Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver.
Her name is Dr. Reba Haley of Covenant Family Church, located in Riverview, a Tampa suburb.
Haley is an ordained minister and a licensed psychologist.
Haley also stressed that in wake of the Charleston massacre, churches must restructure how they operate.
“Every church has an open door policy that is welcoming. In Matthew 26:41, Jesus instructed his disciples, ‘Watch and pray, so that you will not fall into temptation,’ Haley said. “In the 21st century, the church must put precautions in place to protect congregants from evil people and demonic attacks.”
“The spiritual, the clinical, and the natural must all be looked at as a clergy person and psychologist,” she said. “Having a watch person on the door to quickly access people’s behavior, including some who may have mental health conditions, would prove very effective.
“I have a pistol as a personal preference as a clergy person. However, when I look at these things, it is more from a mental health perspective. If you go into the spiritual part it is demonic…One can’t just look at and address this from just the standpoint of possessing a gun.
The religious standpoint is that the enemy is involved,” Haley said.
“As a clinician, I approach it from a mental health perspective. People who are misdiagnosed, not diagnosed, or not on their medication must all be considered. In the natural sense, I approach it from the standpoint that we need guns to protect clergy members.”
‘Welcoming but watching’
Haley said her church has instituted a watchman’s program.
“In the church, we try to implement a ministry of outreach. We must be more watchful and develop strategies to deal with demonic attacks, but also any underlying mental health issues of people who commit these atrocities. We must develop programs such as watchman ministries designed to equip leaders to be spiritually alert and very aware of the movement of people.
“We are not only welcoming, but also watching and observing certain behaviors. Had there been someone at the back two doors, when he (Dylann Roof) got up to shoot, someone could have shot him and possibly prevented the carnage. But everyone was up front and paying attention to the pastor − except his wife, who was in the office. Those back doors were unsecured,” she said.
‘Armor bearer’ defined
Haley noted that her ministry employs use of “armor bearers” and detailed steps churches could take.
“Many churches have armor bearers, a person who carries the “armor’’ – such as a Bible – of a pastor or spiritual leader,” Haley said. “Armor bearers should be part of the security team to help protect the front and rear of the sanctuary. Armor bearers often travel with pastors and most of the times are closest to the leaders at church and en route,” Haley said. “Our armor bearers generally watch what goes on in the church, and I have my personal protection.”
Haley also noted that armed security can provide protection of congregations inside and outside of the sanctuary.
“Whether it’s an off-duty officer or a licensed armor bearer, there should be someone at church who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon,” she believes.
She has been licensed since 2013 for personal protection.
“Many of my clients have mental health issues,” she added.
‘Armor of God’ sufficient
Dr. Terry Turner, pastor of Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas said the church that he shepherd recently upgraded its security ministry, which encompasses 15 to 20 unarmed officers charged with assisting churchgoers with parking and securing the parking lot during services.
To compliment the security ministry, Mesquite has 10-15 members who are currently law enforcement officers, in addition to armed plainclothes officers.
“All officers come prepared to ensure worshippers feel safe and secure for worship services on Sundays and Wednesday evening,” Turner said.
Additionally, the MFBC campus is armed with CCTV, which monitors every entrance and exit.
There are at least 17 monitors throughout the worship center. During services, the sanctuary is split into sections, with members of the security ministry in each section using walkie-talkies to stay in contact.
No armor bearers
Turner said the church has a well-detailed security plan in place, with explicit directions for all members of the security ministry and for the pastor himself.
“I’ve made it clear that I’m not leaving in a crisis,” he said.
Texas is an “open carry” state, which means weapons may be worn and displayed in plain sight.
Turner would not disclose whether he possessed a weapon, but noted that he does not employ the use of armor bearers.
“I simply don’t believe in it. It’s Old Testament stuff,” he chided. “It’s part of the calling for ministers to risk their lives so that others can be saved. I will do my part to make certain every member is cared for,” he concluded.