Before we knew a young white man named Dylann Roof existed, my wife and I would get a good chuckle out of a story from Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Georgetown, South Carolina. It’s the church where my wife grew up, where we said our vows in the summer of 1998, where we recently held a funeral service for her 82-year-old father.
The initials stand for African Methodist Episcopal, a denomination founded by a former slave tired of being discriminated against by white Christians. In the two centuries since its establishment, it has grown into roughly 7,000 congregations along with associated colleges and theological institutions. The World Council of Churches has estimated its membership at roughly 2.5 million.
The area surrounding Mt. Zion is awash in history. It’s an hour’s drive from where in 1861 Citadel cadets fired upon Fort Sumner, kicking off the Civil War. It’s about 15 minutes away from a steel mill that has been shuttered and restarted multiple times over the past decade, where some of the white supervisors in the 1970s were illiterate and required their lower-paid black employees to read the safety instructions on dangerous equipment. It’s tucked away in a pine forest containing dozens of modest, well-kept homes owned by a mostly black population. There are also former plantations where enslaved Africans once toiled, properties still owned by wealthy white families who rely upon black labor to keep them operational and clean.
That’s where, maybe a decade ago, a strange, disheveled white man decided to show up unannounced during a Sunday morning service, taking a seat near the back. His presence caused a stir and eventually led to someone calling the police. Just the sight of him was out of the norm, upsetting.
It was just a funny, quirky story we laughed about many times—until Roof showed up at Emanuel A.M.E., about an hour away in Charleston, and slaughtered nine black people in an attempt to start a race war.
Now when I sit down with black pastors in South Carolina and they tell me stories about being unnerved by strange white people (and sometimes by white people who aren’t all that strange) showing up at their churches, I don’t laugh. I listen. They have serious concerns: Should they install security? Lock the doors? Or even allow guns inside their places of worship?
“I cannot speak for churches of other ethnicities, but as the leader of a black church, I am very concerned,” Reverend James Cokley of Cherry Hill Missionary Baptist Church told me. “Since the Charleston nine were murdered, our church has installed complete security with video cameras, recorders, etc., because we have had individuals walk in and sit down but in the middle of worship, they will get up and walk out.”
Cokley has been a pastor longer than Roof has been alive, beginning 36 years ago when “we locked the church simply to keep people from wandering in.” Now, he says, “No one is turned away… But we do extra surveillance on those who are present. Our members are not totally at ease with visitors not accompanying persons we know.”
Other churches have taken active measures. Reverend Joe Washington, of Hope Church in Conway, has considered plainclothes armed security officers, a uniformed police officer, and other measures. He settled, uneasily, on a few tactics. An usher essentially stands guard at the church entrance during the service and often locks the front and side door (while remembering to warmly greet members and visitors). Washington urged his daughter, who is also a preacher, and his wife, a well-known doctor in the area, to get trained in shooting. They initially balked at the idea, as well as at the notion of having guns in the church. But at least two concealed-carry permit holders come armed every Sunday.
“I never know who they are, and we don’t announce it,” Washington said. “I really struggled with it. The congregation is my first concern. I don’t know how that sounds, but it’s real. We need to be able to neutralize a shooter.”
When he was a pastor in a tough part of New York, he understood there were dangers—he had to tell drug dealers to leave the kids in the church alone—but “it didn’t occur to me that some imbecile would come and shoot up the church.”
It's hard to tell how widespread among churches the internal tug of war between wanting to be welcoming yet hesitating to embrace strangers has become. But it is real.
Before Roof walked into Emanuel, the potential of racial church violence had faded from the front of the minds of many black pastors. No one had forgotten about the four little girls blown up by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963 inside an Alabama church. No one had forgotten about a spate of church fires in the South in the 1990s believed to be an effort to terrorize black people. (One of the churches burned in South Carolina was a different Mt. Zion A.M.E., that one in Williamsburg, just a short drive down the backroads.) But time had begun to put distance between the memory and the reality.
Roof’s murders awakened all those fears, which have been further stoked by the rise of white supremacists who feel emboldened in the era of President Donald Trump.
Though every church leader must balance how best to keep their congregation safe while maintaining an inviting atmosphere, black pastors have unique concerns. They must contend with the racial baggage that comes with discussions about the role guns should play. At the same time, they are also generally ignored by those advocating for an extreme version of the Second Amendment and conflicted by even the thought of allowing killing machines into churches, even when the goal is to prevent the next Dylann Roof. Much of the recent gun debate has centered on whether to arm teachers or how to harden “soft targets.” But the black church was designed to be a soft landing place for those looking for solace in a cruel world. To harden it is to strip it of its primary mission.
President Barack Obama’s decision to attend the memorial service for Roof’s victims and offer a widely praised version of “Amazing Grace” served as a balm to black people’s emotional wounds. But psychic scars remain, even though Roof is slated to spend the rest of his life in a federal prison.
It’s a feeling black pastors don’t want to feel, a feeling they fight against but feel nevertheless.
“My mother was startled by a young white man who came into a Sunday service,” said Cheryl Adamson, pastor of Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church in Conway. “It’s sad, really. We are supposed to be the kingdom of God but have to be suspicious.”
Adamson and her mother aren’t easily startled. In high school, she faced white students armed with rotten tomatoes and vile words—white students who would assault black students and trip them for fun and to scare them back to their underfunded schools—as she and others began integrating area schools. Still, white strangers can spook her and her mother. Even when a white family on vacation in nearby Myrtle Beach showed up well dressed, “Initially, it was just jarring.”
Similar suspicions have parishioners at Palmetto keeping one eye on the door, the other on the pastor preaching or the choir singing. Suspicions have kept the doors locked during nighttime service and rehearsals and meetings.
But Palmetto’s response to the Roof murders has been relatively muted. “We probably err on the gentle as a dove side” instead of the biblical admonition to be “as wise as a serpent,” Adamson said. “We have not done anything concrete as far as new safety measures.”
Adamson doesn’t like guns. Though she owns a rifle “to shoot animals,” she also donates to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit in favor of gun control. Like other black pastors, she’s struggled with whether to allow members who have concealed carry permits to have guns strapped to their waists under their suit jackets or in their purses.
Should she shun guns no matter what because of the damage they’ve caused the young black men she’s trying to reach? Is armed security the right option? What about her own safety? She’s heard rumors that black women pastors are likely to be targeted. The threats in her area post-Roof have been real, including one from Benjamin Thomas Samuel McDowell, a Conway man with known ties to white supremacists who made a series of threats against non-white and Jewish people early in 2017. McDowell was arrested after buying hollow-point bullets and a .40-caliber Glock pistol from an undercover FBI informant. Though he didn’t have “good training” and had yet to settle on a location, McDowell said he wanted to do something “on a big scale” in “the spirit of Dylann Roof.” (McDowell pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a weapon earlier this year.)
Given what Roof did, pastors like Adamson can’t afford to not take all potential threats seriously. Talk of guns, for protection, has been at the top of her mind. She knows at least one member of her church has a concealed carry permit and may have a gun strapped to his waist during service.
“But what do you do when that person is absent?” she asked. “This really is a faith walk, a trust walk. We hope it’s not stupid.”
Though fears of another Roof are obviously present, church shootings are relatively rare. According to data by criminologist Dallas Drake of the Center for Homicide Research, there were 147 church shootings between 2006 and 2016. Most of those incidents involved people affiliated with the church or its members, often those with mental illness or incidences of intimate partner violence. And they have not been limited to black churches.
A couple recent examples: In November, Devin P. Kelley killed 25 members of the First Baptist Church, a white church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Kelley had a history of threatening violence against his superiors when he was in the Air Force and beat his child and ex-wife.) A month before the Sutherland Springs shooting, a teenager attempted an armed robbery at Grand Strand Baptist Church in Carolina Forest, a short drive from Adamson’s church, but was stopped after an exchange of gunfire with an armed man working security in the parking lot.
Those kinds of shootings are more a result of problems in the community leaking into the church, rather than the church or religion being the target. Roof’s attack, which was motivated by intense racial hatred and was arguably an act of terrorism—even if it doesn’t neatly fit the government’s definition—was a severe outlier. Still, pastors such as the Reverend Washington in Conway don’t want their churches to be the site of that rare event or be unprepared if it is.
“I don’t agree with the NRA about a ‘good guy with a gun’ and I don’t want Hope to be the wild, wild West,” he said. “Not in my wildest imagination did I ever think we’d be living in a time like this. But what Roof did was a seminal moment. And I’m not the kind of guy who you shoot at me and I won’t shoot at you back.”
“When a black man has a gun, he’s actually seen as a criminal... What if the cops showed up and I had a rifle in my hand?”
And yet, Washington knows what guns have meant for black Americans. Though Harriet Tubman helped several dozen slaves escape to freedom while armed with a small pistol, guns have more often been used to keep black people in bondage. The “well-armed militias” mentioned in the Second Amendment were often gangs of white patrols whose job it was to keep enslaved Africans in line or to put down black rebellions. When groups such as the Black Panthers began arming themselves in the 60s as a show of force against police who were beating and mistreating black people, white politicians who had resisted gun control, such as California Governor Ronald Reagan, embraced it. When Philando Castile was killed by a Minnesota police officer—after informing the cop he was legally carrying a gun—the National Rifle Association said little in Castile’s defense, even though it was precisely the kind of incident the NRA had long warned against. It was lost on no one that Castille was black and most NRA members are white, and that throughout history gun ownership has been entangled in the issue of race, a way for white people to control and subjugate people of color.
Guns have also caused endless heartbreak in the black community, as young black men remain over-represented among those who commit crimes with guns, as well as those who are victimized by gun violence. That’s just the group pastors such as Washington want to reach and help. He believes in gun buybacks and other programs designed to reduce the number of guns on the streets, but also believes it is vital for black people to be able to defend themselves. He’s not the only one. In the last two years, more and more black people are considering gun ownership as a way to ward off potential attacks.
Even that presents a dilemma. Washington recounted a recent incident when his home alarm went off and a housekeeper couldn’t shut it off. “When a black man has a gun, he’s actually seen as a criminal,” he said. “What if the cops showed up and I had a rifle in my hand?”
Like other pastors, Washington has also had to struggle against the urge to be suspicious of white people, even though some of the original members of the young church were white and a key church principle is for it to be interracial. Before Roof and other recent mass shootings, strangers all of types were welcomed without a second glance, Washington said. It’s one of the most critical aspects of evangelism. But now, though everyone is still welcome, “I’m very, very cautious.”
When a strange white man showed up during a series on financial literacy, Washington spent extra time getting to know the man, quizzing him about how he heard about the classes.
“It’s sad,” he said. “But let’s face it. Who would have thought a Dylann Roof would sit through a Bible study?”
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