WASHINGTON – The youth choir belted out “Oh Happy Day” as folks trickled in through the church doors. Few noticed the accountant sitting in the back pew, watching each latecomer.
In one hand, he held a Bible. In the other, tucked inside his coat pocket, he gripped a .38-caliber revolver.
He had come to People’s Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Md., looking for his estranged wife. And once she arrived and began arguing with him outside, the Bible would be forgotten. The gun would be raised. And in a matter of seconds, the congregation’s sense of sanctuary would be shattered.
What happened that Sunday morning at People’s Church was just one in a string of fatal shootings at houses of worship across the country. The most high-profile incidents – a Kansas abortion doctor gunned down in May, an Illinois pastor shot mid-sermon in March, a Tennessee church attacked during a children’s play in 2008 – have begun to alter the way many churches operate.
Sanctuaries that once left their doors open all day now employ armed guards, off-duty police officers, surveillance cameras and even undercover plainclothes guards who mingle with the congregation.
Some pastors have resorted to arming themselves. The Rev. Lawrence Adams surprised a burglar at his Westside Bible Church in Detroit last Sunday, shooting the man in the abdomen after he swung his bag of loot at the clergyman.
“As a pastor, I’m referred to as a shepherd,” said Adams, a 54-year-old retired police lieutenant. “Shepherds have the responsibility of watching over their flock. Do I want to hurt somebody? Absolutely not!”
The burglar survived – for which Adams is grateful – but the reverend said he could have been hurt or killed if he had not been armed.
People’s Church in Silver Spring had a security plan in place for its 3,000-member congregation that included off-duty officers hired for traffic and protection. But none of it stopped Kevin Kelly from killing Patricia Ann Simmons Kelly on Feb. 22. And now, like other places of worship shaken by violence, its members are grappling with deep wounds – psychological and spiritual – that have lingered long after the police cars and ambulances pulled away.
Nathaniel Fuller sees the shooting today as clearly as he did seven months ago.
At the time, it seemed like fate that Fuller, a doctor with emergency room experience, had arrived late to church. From across the parking lot, he saw Patricia Kelly talking to her husband, who had just moved out of their home.
Tight finances had strained their marriage of nine years, court testimony later revealed, and Kevin Kelly, 53, suspected there was another man, something Patricia’s family adamantly denies. All of it led to their argument in the parking lot – and then gunshots.
In the seconds that followed, an off-duty police officer subdued Kevin while Fuller ran to help Patricia. Months later – long after the ambulance rushed her to a hospital, long after the 52-year-old legal secretary was pronounced dead – Fuller found himself constantly replaying this scene in his head. He had lost patients before, but this was different. He had known this woman.
The doctor still doesn’t understand why God had placed Fuller so nearby if not to save Patricia. “I’ve prayed and asked,” he said. “I haven’t received an answer yet. I don’t know if I ever will.”
Although no federal agency or law enforcement group keeps track of killings at houses of worship, some people recording cases on their own believe that there has been a disturbing uptick in recent years.
Carl Chinn started compiling a database of such attacks shortly after a gunman burst into the Christian organization Focus on the Family where he was working in 1996 and took hostages. Eleven years later, Chinn was working security for the New Life Church in Colorado when another gunman appeared and killed two people.
By Chinn’s count, fatal attacks at houses of worship have grown from a handful a decade ago to at least 32 last year – a number that includes people killed inside the buildings as well as homicides that take place on church steps and in parking lots. But he acknowledges that it’s become easier to track police reports and news stories online in recent years, which could partly account for the perceived increase.
Randy McAlister, a police sergeant in Minnesota doing similar research at Concordia University, likens increasing church violence to school shootings a decade ago: on its way to becoming a persistent phenomenon.
One reason might be that in an increasingly high-alert world, churches remain an easy target. In cases of domestic violence, perpetrators know that once a week, their victim will show up at a specific time, perhaps even park in a certain spot or sit in a certain spot.
Compounding the problem is the prominent role many houses of worship occupy in today’s volatile culture wars.
“You see the language being thrown around … people demonizing each other,” said the Rev. Chris Buice, whose liberal Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tenn., was attacked by a right-wing gunman last year. The shooter walked into the sanctuary in the middle of a production of “Annie” and pulled a 12-gauge shotgun out of a guitar case, killing two people and injuring seven.
But many cases remain enigmas.
The killings at New Life Church in 2007, for example, were carried out by a gunman with no direct ties to the church. Matthew Murray killed two people and wounded three before a church security guard shot him. He then turned the gun on himself.
Even now, two years later, parishioners arriving for Sunday worship pass police cars stationed at the entrance.
“We’ve begun to heal. We’ve even grown,” the Rev. Brady Boyd said. “But in some ways, New Life is never going to be the same. We lost our innocence.”