Four Years After Emanuel AME Church Shooting, Charleston Churches Balance Increased Security and Open-Door Hospitality

Charleston Police Officer Justin Kniess keeps watch over St. Matthew’s Church, on King Street, Sunday, June 9, 2019 in Charleston. The church, located near Emanuel AME, has had a hired officer patrol the historic church since shortly after the shooting in 2015. // Grace Beahm Alford/Staff,

Four years after a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers who welcomed him into their Bible study, Charleston area churches are striving to strike a balance between ramped-up security and open-door accessibility.

The June 2015 deadly shooting an international conversation about safety in sanctuaries. Though a handful of churches were employing off-duty police officers prior to the Emanuel AME Church attack, several have since hired off-duty law enforcement for Sunday morning worship and nighttime Bible studies, along with updating security surveillance systems and active-shooter training to protect themselves in places of worship.

Those affected mainly have been minority groups assembling in synagogues, mosques and historically African-American churches, whose personal safety and property have been targeted by far-right white extremists.

For many congregations, it has been a challenge to take necessary precautions while maintaining a hospitable environment.

St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, a congregation located a few blocks from Emanuel AME Church, hired an off-duty officer shortly after the mass shooting. The Rev. Eric Childers, pastor of St. Matthew’s, said security issues can be divisive since some church members feel it sends an unwelcoming message. The action raised concerns within his congregation, he said.

Ultimately, church members decided that uniformed law enforcement would act as a deterrent, but the officer would patrol outside the sanctuary.

“We initially asked the officer to be visible but invisible,” Childers said.

Mt. Zion AME Church on Glebe Street bolstered security efforts as well. Ushers, the first to greet guests as they enter the sanctuary for worship, were trained to identify suspicious persons, such as those who choose to sit in the balcony though there are many available pews on the ground floor, said the Rev. Kylon Middleton.

The multi-ethnic congregation has kept its doors open to the community, actively recruiting parishioners of different races and backgrounds. Middleton, a close friend of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those killed at Emanuel, regularly has engaged in gun violence reform initiatives, prompting many to send him hate mail and death threats, he said.

But this hasn’t deterred Middleton and Mt. Zion from serving the community. The church hosts several community events, including public discussions on racism.

“We can’t be afraid to open our doors and so skeptical that we miss opportunities to connect with people,” Middleton said.

In North Charleston, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church’s 1,500-member congregation had a security team that was “pretty relaxed” before the Emanuel tragedy, said A.A. Williams, who heads the church’s security team.

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SOURCE: The Post and Courier, Rickey Ciapha Dennis Jr.