By MARISSANNE LEWIS-THOMPSON • 2/4/20
New Northside Missionary Baptist Church — a predominantly black Jennings church — is a welcoming space on the inside. But on the outside, it’s fortified.
Armed security guards monitor the perimeter from the church’s parking lot, while there are several security cameras along the building’s exterior. The Rev. Rodrick Burton has led the congregation for seven years, during which the church lost five members to gun violence.
“I didn’t even contemplate the kind of crime-fighting component or the security component of being a pastor,” Burton said. “I knew there would be challenges being a pastor in an urban area in the city of St. Louis. I knew there would be some things unique, but I didn’t contemplate this level.”
In 2015, the church catapulted into the spotlight when it became one of seven predominantly black churches in the region targeted in a string of arson attacks. As a result, they beefed up security with armed security guards in the church parking lot and security cameras along the interior and exterior of the building.
Burton and church leadership even participated in several active-shooter and security trainings through the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI. Longtime member Barbara Spencer Perry, who has been with the church since 1978, would have questioned having armed security at one time. But with the increased violence, she said she now welcomes it.
“It gives me a sense of comfort knowing that our cars won’t be broken into,” she said. “That we can leave and come and go without being concerned about someone actually out there to gun us down.” Historically, black churches have been on the receiving end of violence in the U.S. Yet the reality is many black churches remain more concerned about street crime than hate crimes.
Prior to the arson attacks, Burton’s church had armed security guards from time to time, mainly to deter people from breaking into the church and stealing the tithes and offerings. “Unfortunately, the desire for security for our congregation is still stemming around the more actuality of street crime or a possible domestic event,” Burton said. “So we view that through the lens of, ‘It would be more possible that someone would rush up in here in a domestic situation as opposed to a racial attack.’”
The Rev. Charles Bobo Sr. shares similar concerns. He’s the pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church in north St. Louis, where he took over from his father last year. Not long after, one of his pastors, Demetrius Stewart, was gunned down.
“It devastated me,” Bobo said. “I had just taken over as pastor, and this was a major blow. I read a text at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I could not believe it. I called somebody right away, and it was just heartbreaking and devastating.” He says escalated violence and shootings near their church led them to up their security team from two to 20 people — all in plain clothes, with walkie-talkies and earpieces. Bobo gets daily reminders as to why all these measures are even necessary.
“We just had someone shot down the street last night,” Bobo said. “A young boy was shot on the corner, right here where we are this past summer. So we know that there is a problem, but if we’re going to help, we can’t leave, but we’re going to do everything that we can to help our community.” The added security precautions, Bobo said, have left many in his congregation feeling safer, because there’s always someone watching over them from the time they walk in and out of the church. His church has a no-guns policy within its walls.
Yet other pastors have opted to leave it “in God’s hands” instead of taking security measures. Faith leaders are pulled in two different directions when it comes to keeping its congregants safe, said Karen Aroesty, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League Heartland.
“It’s a tough conversation to balance — truly being security-aware with the notion of a congregation, which is to be warm and welcoming, and create that secure and safe spiritual place for your members,” she said. “And they seem to be in conflict.”
Despite this, Aroesty says there are inexpensive, unintrusive and simple strategies leadership in black churches can put in place to make their churches more secure.
“Maybe you don’t open every door access to the building that is available for people to come into,” she said. “Maybe you only allow them to come in to one door. Maybe there’s only certain people who get to have keys or pass codes or key fobs.”
Grappling with violence from both outside and within the community is something Burton says must be met with hope. “To present the hope but then also address the brokeness, which is real. Which in a week, it can be a member who you know their child has been shot, or their child is the perpetrator. So that’s where we are. You deal with it theologically. You deal with it through advocacy, and you deal with it through a lot of tears.”
And, he added, prayers.