Every Sunday, parishioners at Marietta’s First United Methodist Church pass Marietta Police Department cruisers, their officers exchanging greetings while keeping watch. The church’s recent capital campaign – the sort of thing that usually focuses on new carpet, fresh coats of paint and other infrastructure improvements – included new security measures.
“How do you secure a church and make it not feel like you’re going to Fort Knox?” Steve Fisher, chair of the board of trustees, said in a 2015 interview. “You want to be friendly, you want to be welcoming but at the same time you have to keep control. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of evil out there in the world today.”
The news at the time was the tragedy in Charleston, S.C., when Dylann Roof shot and killed worshippers during a prayer service; he’s been sentenced to death. A little more than two years later, the nation is watching with renewed horror after a gunman shot and killed at least 26 people in a Baptist church outside San Antonio.
“There’s nothing sacred in the mind of a criminal,” said Jimmy Meeks, a former police officer who now travels the country giving seminars on church security. “I understand the need to find a motive. The churches have to focus on ‘what do we do to protect ourselves?’”
Since 1999, nearly 800 people have died violent deaths on the properties of religious institutions in America, said Meeks, who lives in Hurst, Texas, outside Dallas and Fort Worth. Sunday’s shooting pushes the 2017 death count to 92, a new record, he said.
“I was a cop for 35 years. I’m way beyond the surprise factor,” Meeks said during a Sunday evening interview. “What churches have to do is have somebody responsible for security, have somebody in the parking lot. That is your first line of defense. Do something before you have a tragedy.”
The FBI and sheriff’s officials in Wilson County, Texas, are investigating Sunday’s massacre. A gunman dressed in full combat gear walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs at about 11:30 a.m. and fired dozens of shots, the Austin American-Statesman newspaper reported. The gunman, identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, later died, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether by a self-inflicted gunshot wound or from police fire.
“Our prayers are with all who were harmed by this evil act,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. “Our thanks to law enforcement for their response.”
Here in metro Atlanta, many houses of worship have taken on the grim yet necessary task of preparing for the worst.
“Our church tragically knows that the unimaginable can happen,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, told the AJC after the Charleston church shooting. Alberta Williams King, mother of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was shot and killed while sitting at Ebenezer’s organ on June 30, 1974. Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr., who later said that he hated Christianity and that God told him to carry out the shooting, died in prison in 1995 at age 44.
Following Alberta King’s death, Ebenezer enacted a number of security measures that are regularly examined.
“We have off-duty police officers who are part of the church’s regular security detail,” Warnock said. “We have armed security throughout the church. Some of them of them are visible and some are not.”
At The Temple in Midtown, security is vigilant but subtle. An expert likely would notice the security cameras placed throughout the building and the grounds. Off-duty Atlanta police officers are there any time the Temple is open to the public. They’re usually seen directing traffic, but double as security guards.
“We know terroristic acts can happen,” executive director Mark Jacobson said. In 1958, white supremacists placed a bomb made of 50 sticks of dynamite by the Temple’s north entrance in retaliation for the rabbi’s outspoken views on integration. No one was injured and no one was ever convicted. “The Temple has taken care and taken steps to be open, warm and welcoming, at the same time knowing that bad things can happen.”
On Sunday, area faith leaders took to social media in a spirit of grief and supplication.
“Heartbreak again. Lord, be with them. Lord, save us from our violent and evil days,” wrote the Rev. Bryant Wright, senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in east Cobb County and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Lord, give us a way to stop these mass shootings. Pure evil.”
The Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, offered prayer and a challenge: “Blood cries out from Sutherland Springs today. Spirit interrogates this nation. Soul is sickened. What will shake us enough to wake us up?”