In recent years, an increasing number of congregants in District-based communities of worship have come to realize, especially after the tragic events that unfolded in Charleston, South Carolina and Pittsburgh, that not even benevolence and fervent piety can save them from domestic terrorists eager to shed blood.
The launch of the Bowser administration’s Interfaith Preparedness and Advisory Group (IPAG) however, shows promise of allaying those concerns. Though this multi-agency coalition, faith-based groups will receive information and resources to help them enhance safety during what’s intended to be a spiritually fulfilling time.
“People are still thinking about what happened in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Synagogue and as houses of worship welcome people, that makes them vulnerable,” said The Rev. Thomas L. Bowen, director of the Mayor’s Office on Religious Affairs (MORA)
Last week, Bowen, Mayor’s Office on LGBTQ Affairs Director Sheila Alexander-Reid and other administration officials stood alongside D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) as she announced the launch of the IPAG, which consists of MORA, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA).
Together, MORA, MPD and HSEMA serve as key facilitators in discussions between the Bowser administration and faith-based communities about hate-based threats, grant-funding opportunities and faith leaders’ unique needs. Hours after a Feb. 28 luncheon at Riverside Baptist Church in Southwest, the IPAG hosted its inaugural quarterly meeting during which guests representing more than 60 local faith-based organizations expressed their apprehension about congregating at such a turbulent moment in time.
“When it comes to African Americans, they think about Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” said Bowen, also the Earl L. Harrison Minister of Social Justice & Community Outreach at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest.
“There are a number of historically Black churches in D.C. and [assailants] go on the net and look up the history of those churches. That’s the concern among the historical congregation.”
In 2015, a mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the nation’s oldest Black churches and a civil rights-era landmark, left nine people dead, including South Carolina State Senator Clementa C. Pinckney (D). A judge later sentenced Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, to death for his role in the murders which took place during evening prayer service.
In October, 11 people died at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh when Robert Gregory Bowers allegedly unleashed gunfire during a Shabbat morning services. Bowers received more than 60 charges, including those designated as capital crimes.
During the latter part of 2018, the Bowser administration announced nearly $1 million in security and preparedness grants for local nonprofits operating out of churches and other forms of what have been described as faith-affiliated organizations. These grants, managed through HSEMA via the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, support targeting, planning, training and other security activities.
Recipients include the Adas Israel Congregation, the National Presbyterian Church, the Kesher Israel Georgetown Synagogue, Sixth & I Synagogue, New Bethel Baptist Church and Jewish Policy Center, all located in Northwest.
This response follows the reimbursement of faith-based groups that install security cameras at their places of worship – what Bowen describes as a Bowser administration staple. In a press statement last week, Bowser emphasized the role she wants the IPAG to play in fighting hate-based crimes.
“While we continue defending D.C. values from the forces of hate and bigotry, the Interfaith Preparedness and Advisory Group will ensure D.C. Government is working hand in hand with our faith-based and community partners to support and protect places of worship throughout the District,” the statement said.
Long before Roof and Bowers, some faith-based organizations across the District have answered the call to protect congregants. Since the mid-1990s,the security ministry at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Northwest has employed several measures to defend the church premises.
The three-floor facility, which includes a sanctuary, exercise room, family gathering space, and kitchen, has a dozen cameras, including two facing the front entrance and parking lot where vandalism has occurred.
Church officials recently took their efforts a step further, devising strategies to be implemented amid the most perilous circumstances, like that involving an active shooter.
“Last year, I went into evacuation plan mode. We did a walk through with the fire department and I designed an evacuation route,” Antonio King, deacon and head of Vermont Baptist’s security ministry, told The Informer.
“The other part was MPD coming through the same day to show us the best places to hide if someone gets to shooting,” King, 65, continued. “We also looked at things we should do for people on walkers and in wheelchairs. We numbered each door of the church to identify security areas for people.”