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.
4 thoughts on “Praise the Lord and Pass the Bump Stock and Ammo Canister”
Hi, again, John. You know, gun safety and the physical safety of our churches is (or should be) one of those concrete issues that transcends political (Republican/Democrat, or liberal/conservative) and cultural (rural/urbanite) distinctions. It has become intensely personal for people living in all parts of our country—liberal Northeast “urbanites” as well as folks who live in rural communities in the American South or West—or in rural Northern Minnestota where you are, or in rural Central New York where I live. Don’t you agree?
I mean, I don’t think I’m a liberal “Northeast urbanite,” and I don’t think I have a stereotypical attitude about rural churches, but even if I were, and even if I did, does that invalidate my concern about Fred’s behavior?
I would like to think that congregations and church leaders as diverse as the good people of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and those at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston are equally concerned about gun safety and the safety of churches in the United States.
I would like to think that even rural folks and members of the National Rifle Association would be concerned about gun safety and the safety of churches in the United States.
These issues have been brought home to all Americans in recent years by horrible tragedies. The twin horrors of gun violence and physical as well as emotional injury and death have touched schools and churches throughout America—in Trump Country as well as in Hillary Country.
Actually if you stop listening to the stereo-typical commentators what you would find is many in rural America do want responsible gun safety laws. A few months ago I sat in a meeting of the local Dem. party and we talked about the need to ban assault type rifles and a few days later met with a group of conservative pastors in our local ministarium who agreed totally on a ban. You see it is quite logical. Many of our folk live in the same woods and fields people with little gun training, little experience in the woods and excess money bring their high powered and military rifles to hunt. Where many traditional hunters were raised on one shot, one kill thinking, many of today’s hunters come with an attitude of “if you don’t get them with the first shot, fire as many as you can.” I myself have heard bullets whistle by and have had members whose houses have been hit and seen other unsafe hunting behavior. I believe if you in the cities put your images away we could have serious conversations on gun safety.
But Fred isn’t about gun safety. He is about a man going to church perhaps needing to be uplifted and inspired or maybe comforted, in a very difficult way of making a living, and being told how, without any religious basis his way of making a living is bad. Now that’s assuming Fred was a dairy farmer but he lives in an area where the economy depended on it. I remember in the little rural church I supplied in, talking to a man who drove into the city everyday to work that he would done in a few months, after he had trained the man from Singapore to do his job. He was angry too-but not at me! There was the man in Iowa in the 80’s who on the night before the sheriffs auction to sell his farm literally had to be chased by his wife and 10 year old son as he ran through his ripening cornfields screaming. I met him years later and confirmed his son, and he was broken man. This was also the time I began to see the racial militants surface with their Bibles and Guns, called to urban churches for concern and help and received little support. They didn’t even respond after OK City bombing.
My experience with a growing number of “progressive/liberal” clergy is a sense of provincialism that keeps them for trying to understand those they see in rural churches. I grew up in the city, just blocks away from a MAJOR university and felt the intense pressure of that lifestyle. I also saw Profs with PHD’s that couldn’t teach the basic level course in their field. I’ve lived my life in rural areas because that’s where I am called to be. My most really conservative and in political terms RED church was in the suburbs of a major city. It was also my most closed minded.
Thanks for the response.
Two quick thoughts Christopher. Yes people in this area think about gun safety because many of our members live up to an hour away from any law enforcement. As one of my more conservative peers said so if a bear comes into my yard I can either call for help or “make the problem disappear myself.” This former Marine, knows guns and is an advocate of gun safety training and laws. But gets worried when people on both sides especially the left keeping dragging the 2nd Amendment into it. Just as on the right it is often the extreme that gets the attention because they tend to scream the loudest, so it is on the left. Sometimes we are our own worse enemies.
My second point on church safety is from biblical times there has often been a danger in attending church and witnessing for Christ. The question should be Do we stand for a certain set of morals and beliefs or don’t we, no matter what the risk? Yes we need to make our churches as safe as possible BUT we can’t deny or totally all the risks involved in Witnessing for our faith. In rural ministry it is common to take a public stand on an issue knowing you will stick out like the old “Sore Thumb” and that may involve exposing oneself to risk.
Which brings me back to Fred. I admit his behavior was out of line but what does this have to do with the firearms safety issue? Did he threaten you? Was he armed? Or did his actions and behavior make you feel threatened like what happens so often today?
BTW Thanks for talking to me. It’s been my experience that usually urban clergy don’t feel like we in rural ministry are worth their time and that we “Have nothing in common to discuss with them.” The quote was the answer when a group of rural/small town clergy at an event national called to bring rural and urban clergy together to discuss our ministries.
Well at least now I understand where your stereo-typical image of rural Churches come from. Was Fred a Dairy farmer? I followed a pastor in SE Wisconsin who preached against eating meat, & dairy products to some dairy farmers and his message wasn’t well received either! But then I’m curious about the scriptural basis or church doctrine of your position. I know a scriptural argument has and can be made but it also seems that Genesis, Paul and others have challenged it. But OK! Did Fred threaten you or were you over reacting? Since the 80’s I’ve had various white militias in the area I’ve served and never felt the need to armed protection. I’ve just been careful driving in certain areas. I’ve had members swear at me directly but not been afraid.
Recently my wife told me how a ice fishing guide on Lake of the Woods had been told by an urban client that they wanted to fish in the very same hole they used last year in the very same shanty. The guide told them that the shanties often got moved around and it was impossible for them to use the same hole. The client said they could understand how the shanty could be moved but “How did they move the holes.?” Now tell me should I base my stereo-typical image of an urbanite on that individual because that is exactly what you are doing in my opinion of the rural church member. You would not like the images to be gained from the behavior of urban folks in tourism areas. We are not all Freds. (BTW even in northern Minnesota and before climate change the ice on the lakes melts every Spring and we drill now holes every winter.) Of course if one looks beyond the institution that can be measured in statistics and data, one might find ministries that change lives and can proclaim real biblical justice from scripture.