I was a third of the way through the children’s sermon at Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC Church. It was the last Sunday in Epiphany, and I was discussing our upcoming Veggie Fast—a New York Conference initiative to get UCC church people to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products one day a week during Lent. Participation would be completely voluntary. Even though Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC was a tiny rural church surrounded by, well, cornfields and dairy farms, I thought it would be beneficial for our children—and our adult congregants—to learn about and participate in this Lenten exercise.
Suddenly, Fred, a middle-aged choir member, became visibly upset. “I’m not taking part in anything you’re talking about!,” he screamed. “No church has a right to tell me what I can eat! I’ve had enough of you and your liberal denomination’s nonsense!” And with that, he and his wife put on their coats and stomped out of the church—with Fred ranting all the way up the center aisle and out the door. Honest to God, it was right in the middle of morning worship—there was nothing subtle about it. Everyone in the congregation was electrified. Our two children and their mother were so frightened by Fred’s crazy act that they never returned to the church.
I stammered my way through the remainder of that service as best I could. Afterwards, a church leader said to me, “Don’t worry about what happened today; that’s just Fred.”
That afternoon, I called our church’s co-pastor, Martha, to tell her about the fracas. She suggested we contact the county sheriff—which we did. We knew that many members of the congregation—including Fred—were culturally and politically conservative. Perhaps they saw the Veggie Fast as an intolerably liberal political program. Or maybe our dairy farmers saw it as a threat to their livelihood. But it was clear that something else was going on. Fred’s explosive outburst seemed to be a harbinger of an emotional or mental disturbance. Did Fred have a weapon in his home? We thought he did. Was he the kind of person who might bring it to church and start shooting? We didn’t know, but we could not rule that possibility out.
After that incident, Martha would always preach with her cell phone on the pulpit, and the Sheriff’s Office on speed-dial. Fred’s outburst—and our church leaders’ subsequent decision to allow Fred to return to church without putting security policies and behavioral covenants in place to prevent similar disturbances in the future—was the beginning of the end of Martha’s and my ministry at Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC. We would never again feel comfortable leading services there, and we soon resigned.
I was reminded of Fred’s outburst by the November 5, 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which a gunman killed 26 people. Many of us think that a mass shooting “can’t happen in our church,” or in any UCC church—but I suspect we’re whistling past the cemetery. Gay nightclubs have been targets of mass shootings. Churches of color have been shot up. So have Planned Parenthood offices, mosques, and synagogues. I don’t know why it couldn’t happen in a UCC church.
In a recent CNN.com article, CNN religion editor Daniel Burke noted that, after reading numerous headlines about “bomb threats at more than 100 Jewish Community Centers, vandal[ism] and attack[s at] dozens of mosques” and synagogues, and “shootings at churches across the country,” people might well believe “that sacred spaces are unsafe and that religion is under attack in America” (“The Truth About Church Shootings,” November 10, 2017).
“But most attacks at houses of worship aren’t really about religion. And even with the steady rise of shootings and hate crimes,” churches, synagogues, and mosques are “very safe,” according to criminologists. “There are [relatively] few incidents, but they are high-profile when they occur.”
“Jarringly, most victims of church shootings know their attacker.” In “a database of church shootings between 1980 and 2005, nearly half of the offenders (48%) were affiliated with the church, and nearly a quarter (23%)” of the attacks “involved intimate partners, such as wives, girlfriends and husbands.” Often church shootings are “not racially motivated,” and they are not “over religious beliefs.” Instead, they may be about “a domestic situation [involving] the family and in-laws. Twelve percent of the shooters suffered from mental illness.”
Significantly, “in 17% of church shootings, the attacker felt unwelcome or had been rejected by the church.”
“Deadly attacks at houses of worship have increased in recent years,” because “houses of worship are convenient [targets] for attackers who harbor grudges against former lovers, spouses or friends. Many sanctuaries have regular schedules, lack robust security and proudly bear open-door policies. They [welcome] the least and the lost, even if that sometimes has terrible consequences.”
In a Fox News article, journalist Lindsay Carlton notes that Devin Patrick Kelley, the November 5th shooter, [had] a troubled past.” In 2012 Kelley escaped from an Air Force psychiatric hospital and was caught trying to sneak guns onto an Air Force base in order to kill his superiors (“The Psychology Behind Mass Shootings,” November 11, 2017).
This fits a pattern: “Very often mass shooters are injustice collectors and they’re angry at the masses,” so in their thinking some people don’t “have a right to live.” And there’s this feeling of intense rage where killing one person is not enough.”
In addition, mass shooters “often feel victimized by the world and rejected about past humiliations. They feel like outsiders looking in instead of [being a] part of the world around them. They are aggrieved and possess a sense of extreme entitlement, seeking power, revenge or both.”
“Several mass shooters [have] share[d] Kelley’s record of domestic violence [and violence toward women. Fifty-four] percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 involved domestic or family violence.”
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, journalists Ian Lovett and Erin Ailsworth told the story of the Rt. Rev. Council Nedd II, an Anglican rector in Pennsylvania who has contemplated the idea of carrying his handgun to church since the November 5 shootings in Texas. “‘Weapons do not belong in church,’ he said, but, as a [pastor, he believes that] he has ‘a responsibility to protect the flock’” (“This Sunday, Some Churchgoers May Choose to Pack Guns with Their Bibles,” November 12, 2017).
If you think—as I do—that it is a crazy idea for ministers or congregants to bring guns into the church, the idea nevertheless seems to be catching on with many of the faithful. “In recent years, many [churches, mosques, and synagogues] have installed cameras and hired armed guards. But not every house of worship can afford private security. Smaller churches, [like] St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Pine Grove Mills, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Nedd is rector, are considering arming the congregation or clergy.”
Until two years ago, St. Albans “was open 24 hours a day, with no locks on the doors.” But then, “after [the] deadly shooting at [Mother] Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina,” in June, 2005, the congregation became frightened and began to “discus[s] security measures.” Indeed, short of extending radical UCC-style hospitality to first-time visitors, “when a newcomer showed up” at St. Albans on a Sunday morning, “everyone eyed him warily.”
This raises the question of whether carrying a gun to church actually makes the congregants safer or friendlier. Most gun owners do not spend hours each month practicing how to use their weapon safely in an emergency. What are the odds they will use it safely under conditions of a sudden, “out-of-the-blue” attack?
The National Rifle Association says that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But in the confusion of a mass shooting, good guys with guns can accidentally shoot other good guys with guns. And the police or sheriff’s deputies who respond may not be able to distinguish the “good guys with guns” from the “bad guy with a gun.”
Clearly, churches need some kind of security. Fifteen years ago, when I was the pastor at First Congregational Church in Binghamton, New York, I routinely lamented the fact that we kept our outside doors locked to the general public, and that people had to identify themselves and be “buzzed into” our building. Our church staff smiled at me, as if to say, “Yes, Pastor, we know that you live in a bucolic nineteenth-century Currier-and-Ives world—but our church is in the heart of downtown, and the neighborhood isn’t safe. Then a few years after I had left that church, a lone gunman walked into the American Civic Association, three doors down the street from the church, and shot and killed thirteen people. After that tragedy, I thought that I had been wrong about the church needing to keep its doors open.
Nowadays, I think of the American Civic Association every time I hear of a mass shooting. And I think of Fred’s outburst at the Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC Church. And I wonder what more I could have done to keep those churches safe.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.