Open doors test faith of black churches
Charleston massacre sharpens fears over security
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.