Recent high profile shootings, like the ones that roiled Louisville and Pittsburgh last year, are forcing religious and racial minority communities to evaluate how they keep their people safe. It’s confounded by another stark trend -- a rise in hate crimes -- both in North Carolina and nationally.
It’s the first Sunday morning service of the new year at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist, Asheville’s historic African American church. Sunlight pours through pastel hued stained glass and churchgoers bow their heads to pray. But Deacon Bernard Oliphant keeps his eyes open.
“One of the most dangerous times in any church is prayer time, cause technically everybody’s eyes should be closed,” Oliphant said. “But that’s when security’s eyes are open. We’re always watching and ever vigilant.”
Oliphant is seated in the second row, next to his wife Joyce. It’s the same pew his parents sat in, when he was a child. He says much of this century-old church is the same as he remembers it. But he doesn’t recall security being a concern, even during the heightened racial tensions of the civil rights era.
“It wasn’t like this when I grew up. Now church security is a requirement of every pastor,” Oliphant said.
He helped create the church’s first security ministry. It’s made up of volunteers who take on roles, such as sitting in strategic corners of the sanctuary and organizing security for church events and funerals.
Oliphant, who’s a retired Army colonel, has another tool in his security arsenal. Under his gray Sunday suit, he’s carrying a pistol. He’s also enrolled other members of the security ministry in concealed carry courses.
“They have been learned on weapons security, weapons operation, and protecting people if they have to fire,” Oliphant said.
They regularly practice together at a shooting range. But he says it’s only one step of many the church has taken to improve security. They’ve also installed surveillance cameras and held meetings with law enforcement.
Church leaders spurred into action after the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston. A self-proclaimed white supremacist entered that church killed nine African American parishioners.
Pastor John Grant says as the leader of a predominantly African American faith community, security had always been on his mind. But his fears intensified following the recent shooting in Charleston.
“We figured if it could happen anywhere else, it could happen here,” Grant said.
That’s a sentiment felt by other religious and racial minorities, particularly as mass shootings and hate crimes have risen consecutively for the past three years. From 2016 to 2017, FBI figures show the number of hate crimes reported in North Carolina rose 12 percent to 166. Nationally, reported incidents rose 17 percent.
Jeff Stucker co-owns On Target, where concealed carry classes are filling up.
“It used to be just all white men who’d take it. Now I’ve got groups from all races, all religions, all whatever beliefs,” Stucker said. “I think it’s good from an aspect of education.”
Stucker has been teaching concealed carry and firearm safety for two decades. He says he’s noticed more interest from women, minorities and LGBT groups in the last two the three years.
“It’s not just church organizations, it’s other groups that feel threatened in this time of perceived hatred,” Stucker said.
But the decision to take on security measures -- even for something as seemingly straightforward as locking the doors -- isn’t always black and white.
“Going back to something as simple as a locked door. Most communities, I presume, want to engage in the radical hospitality that our scriptural traditions compel us toward,” Rabbi Justin Goldstein, of Congregation Beth Israel, said. “But can you do that with a locked door? And yet those scriptural traditions compel us to respect the sanctity of life. Can you do that with an open door?”
Rabbi Goldstein is wrestling to find that balance. Recently, his community confronted it after the mass shooting last year at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Goldstein says he thinks measures, like surveillance cameras and locked doors, only offer a false sense of security. Instead, he says, he’d rather see the nation come together and address the larger underlying issue -- access to guns.
“American society would be served well by taking a honest and deep look at what role the tools of firearms have played for us, both in our history and today,” Goldstein said. “And to try and gain a deeper understanding of why is this a unique plague in our society.”
Meantime, Goldstein is keeping the doors unlocked during service. The rabbi says the synagogue’s role as a sanctuary overrides what he calls a “perceived threat.”