The national conversation in the aftermath of the Mother Emanuel shooting almost immediately pivoted to the hateful symbolism of the Confederate battle flag and its prominence in the South. But black churches across the country are having a separate conversation, one about safety.
Since Dylann Roof killed nine people in a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church on June 17, six predominately black churches in the South have been the victim of nighttime fires—three of which are confirmed cases of arson, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Those three cases of arson occurred in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. One other case is still under investigation and two were accidents.
Mother Emanuel had security cameras, which allowed authorities to see Roof enter the building. But what if the church had armed guards? What if those arson-inflicted churches last week had cameras?
St. James AME Church in Newark, New Jersey, has been spending thousands on security, including armed guards, for many years. Next America spoke with St. James Pastor Ronald Slaughter about the safety concerns of his congregation. He says they're going to increase the amount the church spends on security and bring on new personnel to make sure what happened in South Carolina won't happen there. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why does St. James spend money on armed guards?
For several reasons. For protection of members while they are in a house of faith, so that members feel safe. We are in Newark. In Newark, there have been several incidents where persons have robbed churches and robbed the people in particular—taking clothes, taking purses. You also have auto theft, where people come onto the property and the surrounding property and steal cars and break into people's cars while they are in worship.
"When the church is not safe, you're living in some dangerous times." — Pastor Ronald Slaughter, St. James AME Church
What does this security look like?
It used to be, shockingly, primarily in the parking area and also the front entrances of the church where people were crossing the street and coming in. Since Charleston, the guards will now have a physical presence inside of the sanctuary. They are on a rotating clock in which they will be entering the sanctuary and standing in and being vigilant and surveying the church during worship, during Bible study, during meetings. We have security every day that we are open.
How do you balance having security and being a welcoming place?
My balance stays in place. At St. James, you have the homeless society that still comes to worship, you have persons who are coming out of incarceration who are still coming to worship. My armed forces do not stop them coming in. It's just a measure and a layer of protection for people who come to know that they are protected and that there is safety around that facility. It does not stop. I've been doing this in the church for five years, and the church was doing it prior to me arriving. It does not stop that. And if you see the diversity of my congregants, you will still see that I have people who are right off the street. There is a balance. I have not seen the locking of doors on Sunday morning and deciding who comes in and who does not come in. No, no. We do not do that. We don't profile. That's why the young man, the White gentleman could came into the church and nobody felt as if we should get him out of there because we don't profile. Only in the Black church could somebody be able to come in there.
Where do Black churches go from here?
That's the sad piece. Everybody is going to have a keen eye on anybody that looks out of place. That's going to happen now. I don't think you're going to be able to stop people. However, my hope is that we must still be the place where persons can find refuge regardless of race, color, or creed. We still must be that place. But that does not stop you from having safety measures in place. You're going to see a lot of churches invest in security cameras, which turned out to be a blessing for Mother Emanuel that they were able to catch that perpetrator before coming into the church and his face was able to be spread all over the country.
Do you think churches should start doing active shooting trainings?
Oh yes. We cannot be so retroactive all the time. You have to be proactive. This is a measure that's being presented by Homeland Security in the state of New Jersey and the nation, as well. This is not a church issue. It's a precaution being presented by the Homeland Security Department. We must adhere to this. We're living in some dangerous times. When the church is not safe, you're living in some dangerous times.
What does that say about the state of the country?
At some point, we're going to have to sit down and really be honest about race in our country, about guns in our country. As the president said, and I agree with him, it happens all too much in this country compared with other countries.