Open doors test faith of black churches

Charleston mas­sacre sharp­ens fears over se­cu­rity

The Washington Post Sunday - - CHARLESTON CHURCH SHOOTING - BY KRISSAH THOMPSON AND HAMIL R. HARRIS krissah.thompson@wash­ hamil.harris@wash­ Wil­born Nobles con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The Rev. James Coleman still won­ders about the white man who came to church.

The un­fa­mil­iar face showed up one Sun­day at All Na­tions Bap­tist Church on Washington’s North Capi­tol Street. The stranger walked into the early-morn­ing Sun­day school class and stayed all through the ser­vice— but he kept to him­self and never said a word. Fi­nally, the pas­tor asked the man what had brought him there that day.

“I am here to ob­serve,” the man told Coleman. He never re­turned.

It is a mo­ment of ten­sion that is fa­mil­iar to many black parish­ioners. Doyou welcome the stranger who en­ters your church? Or take steps to pro­tect the flock?

At Charleston’s his­toric Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal, the im­pulse was to welcome the mop-haired, rangy white man who ar­rived Wed­nes­day night. The mas­sacre that fol­lowed — a beloved pas­tor and eight faith­ful church­go­ers shot dead — has height­ened the anx­i­ety that has long lurked along­side the ea­ger­ness of black churches to greet new wor­shipers.

“Folks take note” when a stranger en­ters, says Ed­die Glaude Jr., a pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion and African Amer­i­can stud­ies at Prince­ton Univer­sity. But the out­sider “is wel­comed, and peo­ple con­tinue to do what they were do­ing.”

This open­ness is born of a vi­sion of the church as a sanc­tu­ary, Glaude said, “a place for souls that need tend­ing to.”

The day af­ter his own mid­week Bi­ble study, the Rev. Arthur Price Jr. was sit­ting in his Alabama church think­ing about the tragedy in Charleston. He, as much as any­one, un­der­stands the fragility of the church’s open pos­ture in this mo­ment.

As pas­tor of Birm­ing­ham’s 16th Street Bap­tist Church, he also over­sees a down­town sanc­tu­ary that draws a steady flow of tourists and visi­tors be­cause of its cen­tral place in Amer­i­can history: While Emanuel AME was a lo­cus of an­ti­slav­ery or­ga­niz­ing in the early 1800s — and was once burned to the ground in ret­ri­bu­tion— Price’s church was the site of a 1963 Ku Klux Klan bomb­ing that killed four young girls at the height of the civil rights move­ment.

Five decades later, the church still re­ceives threat­en­ing calls and notes about bombs. With each warn­ing, the build­ing is evac­u­ated. Yet Price is care­ful to guard against the in­stinct to ex­clude any­one. “The Bi­ble says be care­ful how you en­ter­tain strangers — you may be en­ter­tain­ing an­gels un­aware.”

Last week, the 16th Street Bap­tist Church greeted 30 sum­mer campers from south Alabama; this week, it was a group from Florida. “We try to make them feel welcome,” he said.

But the Charleston tragedy brought another pas­sage of Scrip­ture to Price’s mind, “We need to be wise as ser­pents and harm­less as a dove.”

There has been a no­tice­able in­crease in vi­o­lence at houses of wor­ship. Fa­tal at­tacks have grown from a hand­ful a decade ago to 74 last year, and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions are re­spond­ing. Af­ter a white su­prem­a­cist shot and killed six peo­ple at the Sikh Tem­ple of Wis­con­sin in 2012, the tem­ple re­opened, but with $75,000 worth of se­cu­rity up­grades.

Se­cu­rity guards and cam­eras have been the norm for years in syn­a­gogues and mosques. Some churches al­ready have dea­cons as­signed to watch over the of­fer­ing plate or off-duty po­lice of­fi­cers hired to roam the premises. But such prac­tices may now be in­creased. Coleman, the pas­tor at All Na­tions Bap­tist, sug­gested that ush­ers may have to take on se­cu­rity du­ties; min­is­ters, he said, need to “come out of the pulpit” so they can rec­og­nize who comes through their doors.

“We can’t do church busi­ness as usual,” he said.

In Selma, Ala., 90 miles down the road from 16th Street Bap­tist, Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) grew up al­ways ex­pect­ing to see new faces pop up in the pews at Brown Chapel AME — also a des­ti­na­tion be­cause of its his­toric role in the vot­ing rights marches of 1965. Greet­ing new­com­ers was just part of the ser­vice. Visi­tors would stand and in­tro­duce them­selves by full name, home church and who in the Brown Chapel con­gre­ga­tion had in­vited them.

“I hope that doesn’t change,” Sewell said.

A day af­ter the Charleston shoot­ings, Brown Chapel was evac­u­ated dur­ing a prayer vigil be­cause of a bomb threat.

“Lit­er­ally, in one breath my mom was talk­ing about how hor­ri­ble the shoot­ing was, and the sec­ond breath she said, ‘Oh, my God, maybe we should have more se­cu­rity at Brown Chapel,’ ” Sewell said.

In Charleston, Emanuel AME also cher­ished an open-door phi­los­o­phy— as best ex­plained by the Rev. Cle­menta Pinck­ney, twoyears be­fore he was killed in the at­tack Wed­nes­day night.

“The African Amer­i­can church — andin par­tic­u­lar, in South Carolina — re­ally has seen it as its re­spon­si­bil­ity and its min­istry and its call­ing to be fully in­te­grated and car­ing about the lives of its con­stituents and the gen­eral com­mu­nity,” he told a group of black and white visi­tors in video­taped re­marks. “Our call­ing is not just within the walls of the con­gre­ga­tion, but we are part of the life and com­mu­nity in which our con­gre­ga­tion re­sides.”

The idea that open doors might be­come closed doors struck some parish­ioners as un­think­able. “We have to be open,” said San­dra Ed­monds Crewe, a pro­fes­sor of so­cial work at Howard Univer­sity and a mem­ber of the First Bap­tist Church of High­land Park in Lan­dover, Md.

“It doesn’t mat­ter what you wear, it doesn’t mat­ter what you look like, doesn’t mat­ter even what’s in your heart, be­cause we be­lieve that when we have an op­por­tu­nity, we can make a dif­fer­ence,” Crewe said.

In Charleston, the ac­cused shooter, Dy­lann Roof, was wel­comed into the Wed­nes­day night Bi­ble study group and sat for nearly an hour be­fore pulling out his weapon. He later told po­lice he al­most didn’t go through with the at­tack be­cause the group had been so nice to him, a law­maker briefed on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion told The Washington Post.

“Yes, it didn’t work with this young man,” Crewe said, “but how many did it work with? Ihave tobe fo­cused on who it did work for.”

Glaude likened the re­newed fears faced by black church­go­ers to those that per­vaded the na­tion af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “What does it mean to think of our­selves as a free and open so­ci­ety and to be at risk pre­cisely be­cause of that?” Glaude asked.

That is­sue is likely to dom­i­nate Sun­day ser­mons this week­end, and Glaude took on the soar­ing ca­dences of a preacher as he ex­pressed his hopes. “You don’t want to change your wit­ness be­cause some peo­ple out there can do you harm,” he said. “In the best of our tra­di­tion as a black com­mu­nity, we have never al­lowed the evil of white folks to dis­tort our souls, to change who we are and to change our rhythms.”

Joshua DuBois, a min­is­ter who has ad­vised Pres­i­dent Obama, said he has been in­volved in two vig­or­ous con­ver­sa­tions since the killings at Emanuel AME. One is about what he called a cli­mate of racism un­der­ly­ing the shoot­ing. “Peo­ple are sick to their stom­achs, and they are not go­ing to ac­cept that this is about one crazy in­di­vid­ual with his own in­di­vid­ual mal­ady,” he said. “Folks that I’m talk­ing to want to get at that root.”

But the dis­cus­sion about se­cu­rity is just as vi­tal, he said, even if it seems to chal­lenge the phrase ut­tered at ev­ery African Methodist Epis­co­pal ser­vice: “The doors of the church are open.”

Yes, of course, the doors are open, DuBois said, “but I think we are go­ing to have to look closely in an un­known per­son’s bags.”


ABOVE: Ah­keem Lee speaks with Boy Scouts from Troop 351 in St. Charles, Mo., vis­it­ing the 16th Street Bap­tist Church in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., on Fri­day. The church had a piv­otal role in the black civil rights move­ment of the 1960s. A bomb at­tack there in 1963 killed four girls pre­par­ing for Sun­day school. LEFT: Se­cu­rity of­fi­cerMelvin T. Kear­ney, with tie and badge, looks on asMari­aWal­las, far left, and Linda Jef­fer­son welcome visi­tors to a prayer vigil for the Charleston shoot­ing vic­tims atMetropoli­tan AME Church in the Dis­trict on Fri­day.


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