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.
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.
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.
“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?”