Wednesday, September 30, 2009

church attacks spike

Washington Post | The youth choir belted out "O Happy Day" as folks trickled in through the church doors. Few noticed the accountant sitting in the back pew, his eyes flickering over each latecomer.

In one hand, he held a Bible. In the other, tucked inside his coat pocket, he gripped a .38 caliber revolver.

He had come to People's Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring looking for his estranged wife. And once she arrived and began arguing with him outside, the Bible would be forgotten. The gun would be raised. And in a matter of seconds, the congregation's sense of sanctuary would be shattered.

What happened that Sunday morning at People's Church was just one in a string of fatal shootings at houses of worship across the country. The most high-profile incidents -- a Kansas abortion doctor gunned down in May, an Illinois pastor shot mid-sermon in March, a Tennessee church attacked during a children's play in 2008 -- have begun to alter the way many churches operate.

Sanctuaries that once left their doors open all day now employ armed guards, off-duty police officers, surveillance cameras and even undercover plainclothes guards who mingle with the congregation.

A small cottage industry of faith-specialized security firms has sprung up almost overnight, offering nervous churches, synagogues and mosques vulnerability assessments, security systems and emergency planning. Many were already on alert for the kind of crimes that have plagued religious institutions for years: churches being burned, synagogues and mosques being desecrated.

People's Church, in fact, had a security plan in place for its 3,000-member congregation that included off-duty officers hired for traffic and protection. But none of it stopped Kevin Kelly from firing five bullets into Patricia Simmons Kelly's chest Feb. 22.

And now, like other places of worship shaken by violence, its members are grappling with deep wounds -- psychological and spiritual -- that have lingered long after the police cars and ambulances pulled away.