Gun violence hits close to home for the families of more than 33,000 gunshot fatalities each year. A few years ago, it hit close to home for Rev. Dr. Katie Day.
Rev. Dr. Day, Church and Society professor at United Lutheran Seminary, was awarded a research grant as Co-Principal Investigator with Dr. David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest University by the Louisville Institute investigating church security programs in response to gun violence and how faith can inform those responses.
“My father, who was 84 at the time, was held at gunpoint in his home by a 17-year-old with a silencer and a semi-automatic pistol,” Rev. Dr. Day said. “His sister went around town using his credit cards and his debit card …”
The incident, in Salisbury, Maryland, ended with no one injured and the sibling criminal duo in jail. “The 17-year-old got 18 years in prison,” Rev. Dr. Day said. “My dad thought that was really harsh.” There were no winners here.
Shootings on the Rise
The research project, “The Body Armor of Christ: Constructing Safety and Security in Communities of Faith,” is in response to the increase in gun violence in the U.S., especially in sacred spaces. “From 1980 to 2005, there were 139 church shootings,” Rev. Dr. Day said. “Most [were] not fatal, and many were in church parking lots during worship; some were related to domestic violence.” By contrast, “From 2006 to 2016, there were 147 church shootings, most of those involved fatalities.”
The study focuses on how communities of faith are responding. “Given the increase in gun violence within the sacred spaces of congregations, including the shocking high-profile massacres in Charleston, SC and Sutherland Springs, TX, churches are wrestling with issues of safety and security in new ways,” states a news release on the website of the Louisville Institute. “… Private organizations and governmental agencies are offering training on church safety, which oftentimes involves forming armed security teams or encouraging concealed carrying of guns by church members. Other congregations seek security without resorting to armed defense.”
Faith and Security
Rev. Dr. Day said churches are wrestling with how to integrate safety and security measures with their faith commitments. “Churches are looking at a variety of safety and security programs …” Day said. “One thing many of them say is to lock the doors once worship starts. So how does this resonate with our hospitality? And certainly the issue of hospitality was raised in the shootings in Charleston [South Carolina],” where a Bible study group at the predominantly African-American Emanuel AME Church welcomed Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, who waited until the end of the study session and then opened fire.
Emanuel, often called “Mother Emanuel” is one of the more prominent AME churches in the U.S., and so the Charleston shootings, on June 17, 2015, were particularly poignant for Dr. Day’s co-researcher, Rev. Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, an AME minister and pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, the first AME church founded in 1787. Rev. Dr. Tyler is a member of the Board of Trustees of ULS.
Rev. Dr. Tyler said the news of the shootings in Charleston was a shock and a source of grief, but not that surprising. He said that church security since he has been a pastor has been concerned with theft and robbery, “since churches are perceived as soft targets and raise a lot of money,” domestic violence issues, “which can spill over into the church setting,” terrorism, “when persons from outside the U.S. consider us a target worthy of their cause,” and domestic terrorism, “which for black churches in particular has been a concern for some time. I know that many were aghast and completely shocked at the incident at Mother Emanuel, but they must not have a keen familiarity with American history.”
Church Violence Nothing New
Tyler pointed out that “only a generation back” the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, killing four young girls. “And near us, a black Presbyterian church, just a couple streets behind us in Society Hill, was burned down in the early 1800s because the preacher dared to speak out against slavery. We have guns in our museum [from throughout the history of Mother Bethel], not only because of our role in the militia, but to protect ourselves and our property.”
The other researchers in the project are David Yamane and Kyle Childress, pastor at Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas. Rev. Dr. Day said the group is studying a range of responses that churches are taking. “For some, the only way to fight gun violence is to arm their congregations. For others, countering gun violence with guns seems counter-intuitive,” Dr. Day said.
Dr. Day pointed out that church-going minority populations in urban areas report much less gun ownership than “white, mainline Protestants,” a demographic divide she hopes the study will be able to illuminate.
“In many ways, this project will lead into a larger project,” Rev. Dr. Day said. “We want to understand how faith commitments are being engaged or not by safety and security concerns … and the consciousness and intentionality of about how faith can inform our decisions.” Dr. Day, along with David Yamane, will be attending several other training conferences throughout the upcoming year.
According to the Louisville Institute release, the study will begin with conversations between the researchers and clergy and laypeople. “These conversations will take place while the team attends a national conference on church security and site visits to clusters of churches in rural Texas and in urban Philadelphia,” the Institute release states. “This collaborative inquiry will help church leaders appreciate their congregations’ vulnerability and to formulate safety strategies that are consistent with their beliefs and traditions.”
Louisville Institute is funded by the Religion Division of Lilly Endowment and based at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky). The Institute’s fundamental mission is to enrich the religious life of North American Christians and to encourage the revitalization of their institutions, by bringing together those who lead religious institutions with those who study them, so that the work of each might inform and strengthen the other.
If you know of any congregations currently going through a discernment process on this issue, Dr. Day would love to hear about it. You can contact her here.