By Brenda Flanagan
High noon, and bells tolled solemnly at Episcopal churches in memory of the nine victims in the Charleston Emanuel AME Church massacre. Parishioners called prayer lines in Newark.
“I just want to say, I pray for those families that God gives them comfort. And that young man, we gotta pray for him but I’m not too sure what to say. Lord have mercy upon his soul,” said St. James AME member Joyce Strength.
Meanwhile, congregations requested and immediately got ramped up security at black churches across Essex County, where pastors told Sheriff Armando Fontoura they fear copycat killings.
“The church is the ultimate sanctuary. This is where people should be able to go without looking over their shoulder. Now, all of a sudden, everyone’s looking over their shoulder,” Fontoura said.
He says, expect to see increased patrols.
“More visibility, more checking of the churches to try to discourage anyone who might think about a copycat, this is not a good place to come,” he said.
“Number one effort on Sunday morning is worship in safety and security,” said New Hope Baptist Church Pastor Joseph Carter. What is his main concern? “If it could happen in Charleston, it could happen in Newark. It could happen at New Hope, at Paradise.”
Concerned pastors quickly convened a meeting at Paradise Baptist — pointing out their current, open-door policies may no longer serve to keep worshipers safe, even within the most sacred sanctuary of churches. They’ll start locking doors and screening visitors, posting guards in the sanctuary. It marks a turning point.
“These are realities of the life that we live today and so we need to also be diligent for our parishioners. And if we’re all trained, we’re all one mind, we’ll know what to do,” said Paradise Baptist Bishop Jethro James Jr.
James talked about holding seminars offered by Homeland Security, to create a “Security Tool Kit” — train church leaders about how to handle an active shooter, how to keep people safe, evacuate the sanctuary.
“You need to know — I don’t care who you are — what to do in the case of an active shooter in your congregation,” he said.
Newark’s African-American church community feels personally connected to Charleston victims, like Assistant Pastor Sharonda Coleman-Singleton — a Newark native — memorialized on her sister-in-law Sharon Askew’s Facebook page. Many of these church leaders knew and admired shooting victim Clementa Pinckney — the pastor at Charleston’s Emanuel AME. President Obama knew him, too.
“This is not the first time black churches have been attacked and we know hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy,” Obama said.
The president says the outpouring of unity and strength that answered the shooting shows old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.