Local pastors of historically black churches are commending Mayor Bill de Blasio for his move to protect their congregations by shoring up police protection near their places of worship. However, they say that this temporary measure to ward off copycat attacks in the wake of a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, should be made permanent, particularly for black churches with prominent and sizable congregations.
On Wednesday night, Dylann Roof, 21, killed nine men and women in a racially motivated attack during a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the oldest black church in the South. Among the dead was the church’s pastor Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a state senator. Roof was apprehended the next day as he fled through North Carolina, and on Friday was charged with nine counts of murder. The Justice Department has said it has opened its own investigation and is looking at the incident as a possible hate crime and an act of domestic terrorism.
At a press conference in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Thursday to announce a new park initiative, de Blasio addressed the mass shooting, saying he would increase the presence of New York City police officers near historically black churches in the city.
“I want everyone to know there’s no place in New York City for this kind of hatred, and that we, through the NYPD, have increased our resources directed at protecting African-American churches in this city as a precaution,” he said.
De Blasio said this was standard procedure following such attacks at religious institutions.
“This is a protocol we have,” de Blasio added. “We’ve certainly had to do this, sadly, in the case of attacks on Jewish communities all over the world, and we make it a point to reinforce key community locations when that has occurred. We, in this case, are going to reinforce key African-American religious institutions and be very watchful for anything that suggests any other type of attack.”
De Blasio stressed, however, that there was “no particular specific evidence” an attack is imminent on a black church in New York City.
The mayor’s remarks about increasing security at churches lead off the video below.
Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem — the oldest historically black church in New York and where the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a pastor — welcomed the news, saying that police protection for prominent black churches should be equal to that of other large places of worship in the city, such as the Jewish Temple Emanu-El and the Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But he cautioned against going down a road where predominantly black places of worship would no longer be seen as welcoming.
“We have a lot of people come to visit with us from across the world and we will see what the police protection looks like,” Butts tells the Voice. “Abyssinian should receive the same kind of protection that Emanu-El receives, that St. Patrick’s receives, because we do have that kind of representation of men and women who come from different places.”
He adds that his church has worked well with the NYPD in the past and that police officers have provided the kind of support the church needed. Nevertheless, he reiterated that the police presence for black churches should be on par with other city churches of their size.
“I think there needs to be added security at those churches that are prominent in their communities,” he says. “So, for example, there is strong security at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I’m sure of that. I know that. I’ve seen it. It may not be obvious to everybody, but it’s there. There’s strong security, I know, at Temple Emanu-El. I’ve preached there. I know that they must have that kind of security because of international terrorism. Well, we stand in the same position. We welcome 500 visitors throughout the week. And we have received threats in the past.”
But Butts says that the added security should not involve intrusive searches or devices like metal detectors, because those measures may affect the traditional welcoming nature of the black church.
“We will continue our normal policies,” he says, “but I do think that we do need a stronger presence around certain of our churches that cater to such a large population and diverse population.”
Rev. Henry Allen Belin III, the pastor of First AME Church: Bethel in Harlem, says churches should increase security but without becoming overzealous.
“We evaluate evacuation procedures in times of tragedies and get help from professionals to how to be able to discern something that may not look right, [but] it’s difficult in a church because churches are filled with people who are hurting,” Belin says. “Security procedures will have to be sharpened and evaluated. We have to pray we don’t become extreme in how you evaluate that.”
Bethel, which last week held a prayer vigil in conjunction with Abyssinian in honor of the victims, is an AME affiliate of Emanuel AME in Charleston. The church conducts weekly Bible study sessions, and holds other events during the week in addition to its Sunday services. The church, which was founded in 1819 in Lower Manhattan, moved to its present location near the corner of West 132nd Street and Eighth Avenue in 1912. Belin has led the congregation since 2001 and says the church welcomes between 250 and 350 for its Sunday services. The Bible studies draw from 20 to 40 people.
“I’ve had people walk in off the street the same way,” he says, referring to how the gunman in Charleston reportedly walked through a side door into Emanuel. “We’ve had people who look different. They come in and we let them in. They sometimes ask a question; sometimes they just sit. Some come in with tears to pray. The church is an open door.”