Vi­o­lence prompts churches to weigh safety vs. wel­come


LOUISVILLE, Ky .— Be­fore he was ac­cused of shoot­ing and killing two black peo­ple in a Ken­tucky gro­cery store last week, Gre­gory Bush knocked on the door of a pre­dom­i­nantly African- Amer­i­can church.

It was 2: 44 on a sunny Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, a day when many churches have mid­week ser­vices. About 70 peo­ple had been in­side First Bap­tist Church Jeffersont­own for a Bi­ble study, but it had ended by the time Bush ar­rived and the doors were locked.

If Bush had been there just 45 min­utes ear­lier, “it prob­a­bly would have been very dif­fer­ent,” said Pas­tor Kevin L. Nel­son.

“We caught him on cam­era at the front door, af­ter he knocked and pulled on it and banged on it, he stood there and put his hand on his gun,” Nel­son said, adding that he be­lieves the gun­man would have shot who­ever came to the door.

“We felt that that was his at­tempt to make it an­other Charleston,” he said.

A po­lice chief in Ken­tucky has ac­knowl­edged the shoot­ing deaths of two black peo­ple at a Kroger gro­cery store in sub­ur­ban Louisville were racially mo­ti­vated. Bush, who is in cus­tody, is white, and the FBI has said it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the shoot­ing as a po­ten­tial fed­eral hate crime.

On Satur­day, a man killed 11 peo­ple in the Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh, adding to a grow­ing list of vi­o­lence at houses of wor- ship. Nel­son men­tioned the 2015 racially mo­ti­vated shoot­ing deaths of nine black peo­ple at an African- Amer­i­can church in Charleston, South Carolina. Oth­ers fol­lowed, i nclud­ing t he shoot­ing deaths of two peo­ple at a New York City mosque in 2016 and the mur­der of 26 peo­ple at a Bap­tist church in Texas in 2017.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors set in mo­tion plans to seek the death penalty against Robert Gre­gory Bow­ers, the man charged in the Pitts­burgh shoot­ings. Au­thor­i­ties say Bow­ers ex­pressed ha­tred for Jews dur­ing the ram­page and later told po­lice that “I just want to kill Jews” and that “all these Jews need to die.”

Speak­ing to a gather­ing of the con­ser­va­tive Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety in Ken­tucky, U. S. Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell said of the Ken­tucky and Penn­syl­va­nia shoot­ings: “if these aren’t t he def­i­ni­tions of hate crimes, I don’t know what a hate crime is.”

Asked by a re­porter if over­heated po­lit­i­cal rhetoric bears any blame for vi­o­lent ac­tions, McCon­nell replied: “It’s hard to know. The po­lit­i­cal rhetoric is al­ways pretty hot be­fore an elec­tion. It’s not the first time.”

“I think the whole tone in the coun­try right now needs to be ratch­eted down,” McCon­nell said. “And these hor­ri­ble, crim­i­nal acts only un­der­score the need for all of us to kind of dial it back, and to get i nto a bet­ter, more re­spect­ful place.”

The vi­o­lence has prompted church lead­ers to grap­ple with f i nd­ing a bal­ance be­tween se­cur­ing their con­gre­ga­tions and main­tain­ing ro­bust outreach pro­grams they say are the core of their faith.

“I think it is sad you have to even lock the doors of the church,” Nel­son said. “It was just the mind­set where I grew up; you didn’t do cer­tain things around the house of wor­ship or even among the peo­ple of God. All that is changed to­day.”

In March, the Ken­tucky Bap­tist Con­ven­tion — one of the state’s largest de­nom­i­na­tions — held a statewide church se­cu­rity con­fer­ence for the first time. More than 1,000 peo­ple at­tended, said Paul Chit­wood, the con­ven­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. He said many peo­ple come to church be­cause “they are hurt­ing and they are con­fused.”

“The church wants to re­ceive those peo­ple. And just be­cause some­body looks dif­fer­ent or acts a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, well we want them in our churches,” he said. “But some­times there is an in­di­vid­ual who wants to do har m. We want for our churches to be pre­pared to re­spond to that and pro­tect the con­gre­gants.”

Nel­son said his church, which is not af­fil­i­ated with the Ken­tucky Bap­tist Con­ven­tion, has po­lice of­fi­cers in their ser­vices. He said they would likely “tighten up” se­cu­rity. In the mean­time, he says he his pray­ing for the vic­tims and for the men charged with the crimes.

“Ev­ery soul is pre­cious to God,” he said. “And it should be to us.”

Courier Jour­nal via ap

Gre­gory Bush is ar­raigned on two counts of mur­der and 10 counts of wan­ton en­dan­ger­ment Thurs­day in Louisville, Ky. Bush fa­tally shot two African- Amer­i­can cus­tomers at a Kroger gro­cery store Wed­nes­day and was swiftly ar­rested as he tried to flee, au­thor­i­ties said Thurs­day.

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