Two Sundays ago, a large, bearded white man, carrying a duffel bag, walked into the sanctuary at House of Hope Atlanta in Decatur and sat near several parishioners and their babies.
The members were “very, very intimidated” and quickly alerted security, said the Rev. E. Dewey Smith, Jr., the senior pastor of the African-American church.
The man was asked to step outside, and his bag was searched. It held a computer. As it turns out, he meant no harm, he just wanted to enjoy the worship service.
Smith said it was unfortunate that people were scared and that the man had to be searched, but “sacred places are no longer sacred and safe.”
Several pastors in metro Atlanta echoed his concerns and perhaps for good reason: Nine members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., were killed last month during a Bible study; several black churches were recently burned in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina; tensions have risen over removal of the Confederate battle flag from some public locations; and Thursday morning a maintenance man discovered that the same Rebel flags had been placed around Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site Visitor Center.
Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, called the incident a terrorist act meant to intimidate.
The Rev. Frank C. Brown, the senior pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, said he expects what happened at Ebenezer and the gun debate will intensify discussions about church safety.
He said a number of churches are considering, or have already taken, security measures, such as hiring guards, installing cameras and putting up signs that forbid guns in their sanctuaries.
Some of this was in place before the killings in Charleston.
“We have to take a close look at what we can do, even beyond those measures,” Brown said. “It’s going to take prayer and the support of law enforcement officials to ensure that we are safe in our worship space.”
Smith, of House of Hope Atlanta, for instance, said the church wants to improve its use of security cameras and develop an evacuation plan.
It already has security guards — some added after a burglary — that patrol night and day.
“Sure, it’s an expense,” Smith said, “but it’s something we have to do to make sure our parishioners and facilities are secure.”
Attacks on places of worship are nothing new and cross all faiths.
One the most shocking in modern times occurred in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 when four African-American girls attending Sunday school were killed by a bomb that tore through the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Between 1995 and 1999, the National Church Arson Task Force opened more than 800 investigations into arsons and bombings of churches and houses of worship. The task force was strengthened by a 1996 congressional vote to increase sentences for arsonists who targeted religious organizations, particularly based on race or ethnicity.
“Historically, black churches have been well known among those who oppose black rights as zones of safety and security and a gathering place for African-Americans,” said Dennis C. Dickerson, an expert in African-American religious history at Vanderbilt University.
“When you hear news like this (the flags placed at Ebenezer and the killings in Charleston), it’s sad,” he said. “You sit here and go, ‘Here they go again.’ As a result of Charleston, a lot of churches are reviewing their security arrangements. … The phenomenon of trespassing on sacred places has become a serious issue. Charleston demonstrated that no place is safe.”
Zandra Jordan, a consultant and minister of Christian education at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta, says she doesn’t let what has happened affect her worship.
“Overall I feel safe,” she said, although she considers the incident at Ebenezer “to be a threat that was meant to intimidate.”
“I do think those kinds of things can escalate into violence,” Jordan said. “We’ve already seen what can happen.”
The Rev. Damon P. Williams, the senior pastor at Providence, said the church recently reviewed its security and evacuation plans.
It’s also thinking about installing cameras inside and out.
While security cameras did not prevent the attack in Charleston, they helped police identify the suspect.
“Dylann Roof (who was charged in the killings) made you think cameras are probably a good idea,” he said.
But Williams is also concerned that people don’t fear going to church.
“We’re people of faith,” he said, “and when we come to worship, we have to trust in God and know that God is in control.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.