Locked and Loaded for the Lord

Last week while I was in Alabama to meet with Mother’s nursing home caregivers, I had supper one evening with my Uncle Harold, Aunt Patricia and my closest cousins. Every time I go home, I manage to finagle a home-cooked meal and lively conversation out of my Alabama kinfolk. The laughter and reminiscences make these sad trips related to Mother’s declining health much less depressing.

 My relatives filled me in on local news, particularly from Welcome #1 Missionary Baptist Church, the house of worship I attended in my youth. Back in September, the church celebrated its 75th anniversary with a commemorative service. You could say that a “greatest generation” of locals, mostly farmers and laborers, founded the church in the little mountain community in 1942. As bombs fell on Europe’s historic stone cathedrals during World War II, a small, whitewashed country church in the Appalachian foothills of Alabama took form.

Our conversation gradually moved from Welcome’s anniversary to the November 5 shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and how that tragedy might impact Welcome’s congregation. My family was distressed by the brutality of the murders. My aunt was especially horrified by the deaths of the children: “That man even shot babies crying in their mothers’ arms,” she lamented.

My family members and the rest of Welcome’s congregation are realists. They accept that cruel, mentally disturbed people exist in the world and must be dealt with on those terms. Perhaps the church founders’ stoicism and pragmatism, forged in an era of economic hardship and war, left an indelible impression on subsequent generations of churchgoers. While they prefer peace and fellowship, they’ve seen enough recent violence and degeneracy within the community to hope for the best–but prepare for the worst. In 2013, my cousin Brian played the church piano at my father’s funeral. Less than two years later, Brian himself was dead, after a meth addict murdered him with a hatchet. He was only 52 years old. In the wake of Sutherland Springs, many who attend Welcome Church are considering arming themselves during church services, just in case the unthinkable happens.

Little country churches like Welcome don’t have the money to hire private security firms. The minister, choir director, and other church officials are volunteers. The money the church collects in offerings goes to repair the building or fund community projects like Christmas fruit baskets for the elderly. So now, many church attendees themselves feel compelled to take point on church safety.

My cousin-in-law plans to attend a “Safety in the Place of Worship” class sponsored by one of the local sheriff’s offices. The press release announcing the training says, “The class will focus on prevention and the steps a church and congregation can take to prevent imminent danger from occurring. Some of the points that will be discussed are the creation of a church security team, increasing situational awareness, and promoting building security tips. It is encouraged that 2 to 4 members of a church attend that may make up a security team.” According to the sheriff’s office, this sort of training is in high demand right now; church attendees everywhere are taking firearms and self-defense classes and bringing guns to church. A Youtube keyword search for “church security” calls up many videos related to topics such as active shooters and armed self-defense in the sanctuary.

Churchgoers aren’t strangers to violence. The shooting at the Charleston AME church two years ago shocked many. Fifty-four years ago, though, the preferred instrument of terror was not the AR-15 but the bomb, when four African-American girls died at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a mere fifty miles from where I grew up. Political and social unrest has always impacted schools and churches. And now that rural communities are contending with all sorts of social problems like opioid abuse and untreated mental health issues, it’s likely that even more houses of worship may become cultural, social, and political war zones.

Some argue that it’s problematic for private citizens who have only a small amount of training to be members of a private security team. The danger that someone innocent might be killed in an exchange of gunfire is certainly a concern. “Leave security to law enforcement and other authorities,” the argument goes. However, I suspect those attending Welcome Church would point out that in the case of Sutherland Springs, the authorities failed to protect the public. Devin Patrick Kelley, the shooter, faced Air Force court martial for domestic violence, which should have prevented his purchasing firearms. However, the military neglected to report Kelley to the FBI, so his convictions did not appear in the National Crime Information Database. Many ordinary citizens believe that if they are forced to rely on the authorities in such cases, they will suffer the same fate as the attendees of Sutherland Springs Baptist Church. For many churchgoers, packing heat during Sunday morning services is an unfortunate but necessary reality.

As its name indicates, Welcome Church is a friendly place. The congregation warmly invites everyone to its services and social functions. If people show up with a casserole for the church picnic, they are embraced as friends. However, at Welcome and other rural churches across the country, anyone entering the sanctuary with violent intent may now be met by a congregation locked, loaded, and prepared to defend itself.