Even before a gunman killed nine people at a Charleston church Wednesday night, religious leaders in York County and their congregations had concerns over security and safety.
Almost all churches have some kind of sign representing the Christian theme of “All are welcome,” but the reality of violence means all are still welcome – but someone might be watching you.
And at some churches, those people already are carrying guns outside church and inside church, the missions director of the York Baptist Association says.
At Freedom Temple Ministries in downtown Rock Hill, York County’s largest black congregation with more than 2,000 members, a security ministry of members led by a retired police officer has been in place for years, said the Rev. Herbert Crump, senior pastor. The church, like most churches these days, has alarms and surveillance cameras.
“There is evil in this world – the act in Charleston was evil – and we have to be proactive,” Crump said. “We want people to feel safe here where they come to find the peace of Christ.”
The gunman in Charleston, a white stranger, sat through an hour of Bible study among the black congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church before killing nine people.
Churches will continue to embrace the idea that the church doors are open to anyone seeking help, Crump said, even if there is security in place.
“That person refused to allow what was offered to him at Bible study – hope – and he chose to kill,” Crump said. “There is no security system in the world that can thwart all evil. But we do need to be vigilant and aware. What has happened at the White House, where a man jumped a fence, shows that a person with evil intent can even breach the most secure building in the world.
“The people at Emanuel welcomed someone in to Bible study. We are not going to become churches where we do not allow people inside.”
In 2002, arsonists burned down the historically black Antioch Baptist Church south of Chester in a crime that is unsolved, despite investigations by the FBI and state and local police. Several area churches increased security following the fire – even hiring off-duty officers – as most in Chester believed the church arson was a hate crime.
The Rev. Paul Long, Antioch’s pastor, said the arson did not deter his church from having open doors, but he and his members have since kept a wary eye.
“The doors will be open, they must be open, to all people,” Long said, “but we can be watchful and vigilant at the same time.”
In 2004, a fire at Freedom Temple’s former location prompted increased Rock Hill police presence not just at Freedom Temple, but at several black churches. Then-Police Chief John Gregory, the department’s first black chief, ordered more patrols at several churches.
The cause of the fire was never determined, but the safety concern was real and felt throughout the city by thousands of blacks attending services. There have been no similar incidents in York County since.
There have been no threats against any houses of worship in York County before the Charleston killings or since, York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said, and no churches have requested deputies for increased presence since Wednesday’s shootings.
Bryant urges people to be vigilant but not fearful, calling what happened in Charleston “an isolated incident by one individual filled with malice and hate for black people.”
Thursday night, at a multi-racial, interdenominational prayer vigil at an AME Zion center in Rock Hill, security guards and several Rock Hill police officers were on duty.
Rock Hill’s historically black Flint Hill Baptist Church was rebuilt after being burned by an arsonist during the civil rights era. The Rev. Al Yates, Flint Hill’s pastor, had discussed with members security during night and weekend services even before the Charleston massacre. The church is considering a system with which visitors would be buzzed in during times when the church is holding Bible study and other functions.
“We tell people that everyone is welcome, and we mean it,” Yates said, “but we also have to deal with the reality that there are some out there who would use an opportunity to do harm if they have one.
“The church will always be a home for anyone who wants to come through the doors, but we have to be aware.”
The killer in Charleston was white and the victims were black, but the concern over safety is not limited to black churches.
Mike Wallace, missions director for the dozens of churches in the York Baptist Association, said that member congregations already had been in conversations about security – and more likely will consider more measures now. The South Carolina Baptist Convention has urged its members to talk about and acted on security issues, he said.
Some churches already have a security ministry, Wallace said, some of which are armed.
“Some churches have action plans, response plans, security plans already in place,” he said.
Wallace said he believes if an armed person had been inside the Emanuel church when the killer made his intentions clear or started shooting, some lives might have been saved.
Like Crump and Yates, Wallace does not foresee churches deploying metal detectors, security wands or other measures that would turn going to services into an ordeal similar to going through an airport.
“We can’t take all evil out of the world,” Wallace said.
At York’s First Presbyterian Church, a community prayer service and vigil scheduled for Monday to promote healing and to solidarity with the Charleston victims will go on with open doors, the Rev. John Mews said.
The show of openness, of love, of welcome to all people of all races, the pastor said, partly depends on those open doors.
“What happened is a baffling example of evil,” Mews said.
His church has locks and security measures for staff during times when there are no services, Mews said, and security is a serious issue for church staff and members. But he has not asked the York Police Department for extra patrols or hired private security for Monday night’s prayer vigil.
First Presbyterian will go forward not with guns, but on faith.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065
Have a vigil or prayer service planned?
First Presbyterian Church in York will be hosting a prayer service for healing after the Charleston shootings Monday at 6 p.m. at 10 W. Liberty St., York.
To list your prayer vigil or service for Charleston’s victims, send information to firstname.lastname@example.org.