Shortly after a gunman took 25 lives in a Texas church massacre, some clergy in Kansas City reached for their cellphones.
“Amazing how many pastors started texting each other,” said the Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield II of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church.
Hartsfield, who remembers a time in his youth when kids would quiet down just walking by a church, believes the day has passed of a house of worship being “sacred space.”
The slaughter on Nov. 5 at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, added to a growing list of violent acts in churches, synagogues and mosques across America.
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Through August this year, which does not include the Texas shooting — by far the most deadly incident — statistics show the country had seen 173 violent acts in houses of worship. These acts are defined as a crime against a person, including assault, homicide, battery and domestic violence.
In response, Hartsfield said Metropolitan Missionary, located on Linwood Boulevard in midtown, is trying to organize a gathering for perhaps as many as 20 churches to talk about what can be done to increase church security.
Forestal Lawton, who has attended Metropolitan Missionary for more than 50 years, didn’t think hiring off-duty police officers for Sunday mornings a few years back would sit well with the congregation. It did.
Now he favors the stronger measures Hartsfield is talking about.
“It doesn’t speak well for society, but we fall prey to those things we see on the news,” said Lawton, a deacon. “We have to be aware of who comes into our church. We need to express love and be open, but we can’t let a stranger walk halfway down our sanctuary without somebody saying something to him.”
Metropolitan Missionary contacted Grandview-based Strategos, a company that helps churches enhance security measures, including surveillance, lock-down training and even active-shooter drills.
Business is booming, said Strategos president and founder Vaughn Baker, who spent 13 years as a Lee’s Summit SWAT officer.
“Unfortunately, something really bad had to happen to make people act and it did,” Baker said.
Clergy, police and experts all get around to the same irony: Houses of worship of all faiths are vulnerable because they are welcoming.
The attacks are forcing all faiths into a balancing act.
“Our faith calls on us to be welcoming and not to be afraid,” said the Rev. Carla Aday at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City. “But the church has always faced the same issues as the rest of society because the church is made up of the same people.”
Texas changed everything, said Stan Lister, chairman of the trustees at Metropolitan Missionary. He’s the one who contacted Strategos.
“It’s not what God desires, but it is reality,” Lister said.
‘Our society is breaking down’
To be clear, experts say churches are relatively safe places and that violence there is rarely about religion. It most often stems from the usual suspects: domestic relations, robbery, mental illness or drugs.
In Sutherland Springs, the shooter, who was not a member of the church, apparently was targeting a member — his mother-in-law. Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who pleaded guilty to murdering nine people in 2015 at a black church in Charleston, S.C., said he hoped to start a race war.
Kansas City remembers well the 2014 attack in which a neo-Nazi killed three people at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park.
At Strategos, Baker hears objections to church security all the time. Things like, “Oh, God will protect us.”
He counters with: “Okay, if God will protect you then don’t wear a seat belt, take out the smoke detectors.”
He does his own balancing act: Strong Christian faith and cold steel diligence all wrapped in a dire philosophy.
“Our society is breaking down,” he said in his office. “We kicked God out of schools and other public places. Evil is the absence of God.”
His company didn’t used to do church security, focusing instead on schools and work places.
“But every time there would be a church shooting, someone would tell me we needed to get into that,” Baker said.
So they did in 2008 and since then, the company has worked with more than 750 churches in 30 states. Baker, who serves on the security team at his own church, says statistics back up his company’s mission.
In the past 10 years, he said, churches, synagogues and mosques have seen a 600 percent increase in violent crime. Much of his research comes from Carl Chinn, a church security specialist based in Colorado.
According to Chinn, a fourth of church homicides stem from robberies, 16 percent from domestic violence, 14 percent from conflict between two people who do not live together and 10 percent from mental illness.
Religious difference accounts for only about 6 percent. The rest are scattered causes.
Chinn said he advises churches to adopt the “Nehemiah model” of church security, a reference to Nehemiah 4:9 — “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”
To this end, Strategos offers courses on intruder awareness and parking lot security, but also a “church security boot camp” and a four-day course called “tactical applications of the pistol for church protectors.”
The Sutherland Springs shooter walked across the street in broad daylight carrying an assault-style rifle. Simple parking lot surveillance could have put the building on lock down, Baker said.
“But they didn’t know evil was in their midst until it was too late,” he said.
‘Violence is integral to America’
Hartsfield, whose father served as pastor at Metropolitan Missionary for 42 years, knows that every Sunday morning someone breaks a rule and carries a concealed weapon into the church.
He doesn’t like it but he gets it.
“It is no secret that violence is part of black communities,” he said. “We hear gunfire nightly. It is a byproduct of poverty.”
He is, in fact, surprised at people’s shock about violence in churches. The country, he said, was founded on violence. Look at the pioneer movement west and genocide of Native Americans, slavery, labor wars, Jim Crow and all the nation’s wars.
“Violence is integral to America,” he said. “It is just part of who we are. It’s just now coming to the churches.”
Aday adds that you don’t have to reach far back in history to find examples of violence in religion, including the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, the murders of Roman Catholic priests in Central America and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Hartsfield knows that two of those were more about race than faith. As was the far more recent rampage in Charleston.
That’s why he thinks black churches remain particularly vulnerable. They serve as anchors of black communities and there is not a clear line between the sacred and secular, between faith and activism.
“That was terrorism in America,” Hartsfield said of Charleston. “We rally against foreign enemies and a common foe, but we run to our own corners when it comes to terrorism in this country.”
That’s why his church is hosting the upcoming meeting to talk about church security. Could his church go so far as active-shooter drills in the sanctuary?
“At this point, whatever it takes,” he said.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182