Carolina congregations wrestle with taking guns to church

Faith communities grapple with fear of firearms and goal of preventing yet another mass shooting

Jack Logan at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

It has been more than two months since nine members of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were shot and killed during a Wednesday Bible study, and longtime member Liz Alston still can’t go back to services.

“If I go and when I go, I will be watching the door,” she said.

She has been a member of Emanuel for almost 50 years and the church historian for about three decades. She goes to the church just about every day. During Sunday services in the church’s sanctuary, which seats 2,500, she has noticed a steady stream of strangers since the shooting. It keeps her guard up, she said.

“I feel — and this is just my own feeling, and I’m sure other church members feel that guns shouldn’t be in the church — but look what happened when someone can come in and the church members have good intentions,” Alston said. “I would have no objections to knowing that if someone else can come in with a concealed weapon, why not a church member?”

Of the nine people murdered, five were ministers at the church. “One, [the Rev. Daniel] Simmons, did have a permit to carry a gun, but he did not want to bring it into the church,” Alston said. He was shot in the back, and many believe he was running to get his gun, she said. “Had he been un-Christian enough to bring his gun into the church, things might have been different.”

Alston’s openness to churchgoers’ taking guns inside Emanuel’s sanctuary is part of a growing debate in some churches in North and South Carolina after the Charleston shooting over how to keep their congregations safe. Some pastors — and members of their congregations — are discussing whether to allow guns through their doors. Some are buying weapons and getting training, while others want to eschew having any guns inside houses of worship.

‘[The Rev. Daniel] Simmons did have a permit to carry a gun, but he did not want to bring it into the church. Had he been un-Christian enough to bring his gun into the church, things might have been different.’

Liz Alston

member, Emanuel AME Church

For one Charleston-area pastor, weapons in churches doesn’t pair well with spirituality. Recently, Erik Grayson of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina, began receiving emails regarding church members “who were talking about ‘We need to strap on our sidearms to level the playing field,’” he said.

“Nothing says ‘welcome to church’ like a gun-carrying usher,” Grayson said. “That’s not why we gather as a church.” 

“What I’m reflecting on from a theological side is, is it not heresy to bring guns into the church?” he said. “When you take a gun into a place of worship, you’re making a very bold statement about where your safety comes from,” he said. “And when you enter a place of worship [with a gun], you’re entering it with the intent to harm someone.”

From the gun lobby’s perspective, the constitutional right to self-defense does not end when you step inside a church, according to National Rifle Association spokeswoman Amy Hunter. “The fact is that criminals routinely choose gun-free zones because they know law-abiding people inside them will be unarmed. Allowing lawful gun owners to carry their weapons where they choose makes everyone safer,” she said.

Research shows that Americans are largely in agreement with Hunter. According to a December 2014 Pew Research survey, 52 percent of Americans favor protecting gun rights, compared with 46 percent in favor of controlling gun ownership — a sea change in opinion in part due to a disconnect in perception of crime rates.

There are more guns in the U.S. than any other country in the world, with Americans possessing as many as 50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported.

And where there are more guns, there are more homicides, research shows. This year alone, there have been 248 shootings that involved four or more people, according to crowd-sourced Mass Shooting Tracker.

For the Rev. Brenda Stevenson, the pastor of New Outreach Christian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, the responsibility of keeping her congregation safe means becoming armed.

“I’ve got two new members getting ready to join — Smith & Wesson,” she said, laughing, of the gun she intends to buy after she and five other church members complete a concealed-carry class. “It will be beside me on the table. It’s going to be in a case, but it looks like my Bible case.” 

Some in her congregation have considered staying home out of fear after the Charleston murders, she said. “When it happened in a church and then another movie theater, then my mind was really made up,” she said. “They’re going into churches. They’re going everywhere.”

She said attendance is small for a typical event at her church — about 50 — but can climb to thousands if its food and clothing outreach program recipients are counted. “We don’t want anyone to hurt us. The work we do — we serve people that have lost their jobs or don’t know which way to turn to get help,” she said. “Some of them look like they’re about to explode.” 

“You have a heart to serve, but you don’t know their intentions. You’ve just got to be ready and prepared,” she said.

‘I’ve got two new members getting ready to join – Smith & Wesson. It will be beside me on the table.’

the Rev. Brenda Stevenson

pastor, New Outreach Christian Church

Grayson knows his stance against guns in his church will likely upset some in his congregation. Last week, for example, he heard of parishioners at a local Methodist church leaving in favor of joining another congregation in the area “so they can carry their firearms,” he said.

“While it is a policy issue, it’s also a discipleship issue,” he said. “I want to bring people to a deeper understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ. It’s not just about me saying ‘No guns.’ I want this to be something that’s formative and will teach people to really reflect upon what it means to follow Jesus as a church.”

The spiritual implications of carrying weapons into places of worship are profound, said Lad Everett, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, based in Washington, D.C. “You’re basically going to be sending the message to congregants, ‘An eye for an eye,’” he said.

Concealed weapons in churches will present more opportunity for their mishandling and accidental discharge as well as the escalation of domestic situations, he said.

“I think it’s important to note that these mass shooters are not some kind of other,” Everett said. “These are human beings like the rest of us — for whatever reasons throughout their lives, due to mental health issues, disappointments. These could be congregants in their church.”

Like many churches, Washington Missionary Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, has no plan in place for a shooter. But that’s about to change, according to its pastor, Melvin Clark. The church is selecting at least 10 members to undergo intensive training, with the cooperation of local law enforcement, to learn how to respond during a shooting and use their guns properly. “The worst thing that can happen is when people have a concealed weapon permit but they don’t know how to handle the weapon in a situation like what happened in Charleston,” he said.

The security team will be subject to background checks and will be insured and bonded. Their guns will be concealed during services. Clark, however, will not be carrying a weapon. “No, I’m going to preach,” he said.

While Clark said the Charleston shooting played a vital role in the plans, he is also drawing on an experience with a shooter in his church. In 2002 a man became hostile during a counseling session with Clark after a breakup with his girlfriend, taking Clark and eight other church members hostage at gunpoint. “It ended up in a police shootout, with five people getting shot,” Clark said.

North Carolina is a concealed-carry state, so the church has ordered signs making clear that personal guns are not allowed inside, he added. His rationale speaks to the underlying complexity of the issue. “I’m prior military, and the worst thing you can do is put guns in the hands of everybody,” he said. “What prompted me is to keep the congregants safe and keep them from taking matters into their own hands. The only way to do that is to have a good plan of action.”  

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