The increasing violent incidents that are occurring in places of worship has become a concern for clergy in D.C.
As a result, the Ward 8 Clergy and Faith Leaders organization addressed this at its Saturday, Dec. 8 meeting that took place at the Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast. The Rev. Donald Isaac Sr., co-chair of the organization, said safety in houses of worship has become a central issue for many congregations.
Issac introduced the Rev. Ricardo Payne of The Lighthouse Baptist Church as the primary speaker on the issue. Payne, in a sometime moving 15-minute address, said times have changed in regards to churches as being safe havens from violence.
“In the past, the House of God was the place where people gave you respect,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. People are crazy. Folks are crazy.”
Payne recounted his own personal story with church violence: On the morning of March 30, 2008, Payne was speaking with a female parishioner and a bodyguard in the parking lot of Hart Middle School, where a service was held, when the woman’s husband approached the three carrying a loaded shotgun.
Payne said the husband made statements to the effect of “I’m gonna kill you” to him. The parishioner, who had hired the bodyguard to protect her from her husband, jumped into the passenger side of the bodyguard’s GM Denali while Payne and the bodyguard ran behind the vehicle.
The husband, Rudolph Scott Harris, tried to reach his wife but she won’t open the door. He tried to break the glass window but it only cracked.
Payne said the husband then came to him, put the shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, but the weapon jammed and did not fire. Frustrated, Harris hit Payne over the head with the shotgun.
“He was angry he didn’t kill me,” Payne said to the audience of 50 at the Saturday meeting. “When he hit me, blood was all over the place.”
The husband was eventually caught by the police and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
Payne said the event still shakes him.
“This happened in front of my family and this still impacts me today,” he said. “It impacts my family [and] my grandchildren, and people have even left my church because of the incident.”
In recent years, places of worship have become targets of violence. On Oct. 27, 11 people were fatally shot and seven injured at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. On Nov. 5, 2017, 26 people were killed and 20 injured in a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Spring near San Antonio.
And on June 17, 2015 nine people were killed by avowed White supremacist Dylann Roof at the historical Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
Payne said his awareness of surroundings has been heightened.
“Churches are considered soft targets,” he said. “I pay attention when someone comes into my church with an overcoat on and it’s hot outside. I follow the rule, ‘if you see something, say something.'”
Payne said all churches should have security plans and the Rev. Thomas Bowen, the director of the Office of Religious Affairs under D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), wholeheartedly agrees.
“We have been working ServeDC to have ongoing training for places of worship,” Bowen said, noting that historically Black Asbury United Methodist Church has undergone the training program. “All churches in D.C. should have a security plan.”
Bowen said the training takes three hours and his office and ServeDC is open to meet with church leaders “at any time and any place.”
Bowen also encouraged the audience to utilize church members who work in law enforcement for the formulation and implementation of the security plan and to get to know the police commander in their neighborhood. An audience member suggested that ushers should also be part of the training, with which Bowen agreed.
Bowen said the next training for anyone who wishes to participate will take place on Dec. 18 at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest.