GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The tiny white church has new locks, peepholes and brass plates. While its parishioners pray, the sanctuary is bolted shut and a police officer is now stationed outside. Soon, surveillance cameras will be installed, and the 47-member congregation will participate in active-shooter training.
This is the next chapter for the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which the authorities said was targeted in mid-November. Gainesville police charged a 16-year-old white girl with planning a racially motivated knife attack to kill the black worshippers, a plot they said bore eerie similarity to a 2015 massacre at a storied African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
In Gainesville, a small city of about 40,000 residents in the heart of Georgia’s poultry industry, the police chief has urged church members to use low-tech force to protect themselves. They should hurl Bibles or hot coffee, chairs or fire extinguishers, anything, he said, that can be weaponized if they are under attack and cannot safely escape.
“It’s a shame that we live in a world today where we have to protect our institutions of worship, our schools, but evil knows where we are most vulnerable,” Chief Jay Parrish told church leaders during a recent introduction to the active-shooter training. “The lightning bolt got too close this time.”
Faced with a rise in attacks on houses of worship, the Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool, the pastor of Bethel, and other religious leaders across the country are fortifying their buildings and preparing for the possibility of mass shootings. Some have also turned to armed security and organized law enforcement patrols.
Last week, a gunman opened fire during Sunday service at a Texas church, killing two parishioners before an armed member of the church’s volunteer security team fatally shot him. And over the past two years, gunmen have targeted worshippers at synagogues in Poway, California, where one person died, and in Pittsburgh, where a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs gunned down 11 people, and at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed and another 20 were wounded.
“Unfortunately, this is what it has come to. We have to be ready to fight back,” said Rizer-Pool, a retired Army major who has led Bethel for about 18 months. “We are having to get our arms around this idea of praying and praising our God in what is supposed to be a place of peace, but having to be watchful and on the lookout.”
Faith groups have responded to the growing threat of hate crimes and violence, in part, by offering specialized training and producing safety guides. The Council on American-Islamic Relations published a safety manual for religious institutions and began holding training sessions after a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012.
“Our thinking is, if you substitute ‘mosque’ for ‘church’ or ‘synagogue’ or ‘temple,’ the concerns are the same, so we made the guide available to the entire faith community,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the group.
After a gunman stormed the small church in Sutherland Springs in November 2017, a Dallas-area megachurch organized an active-shooter training session, which more than 600 church leaders from across the country attended. Since then, the church and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention have provided training and security assessments at about 150 churches in Texas, Oregon and Missouri. Texas legislators responded, too, by passing laws that allow anyone with a concealed-carry license to bring firearms into churches.
In Gainesville, about 55 miles northeast of Atlanta, the Police Department has conducted training and security assessments across the city since a gunman stormed an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 26 people, including 20 children, in 2012.
At Bethel on one recent dreary Saturday morning, after the hymn, the prayer and the scripture reading, Parrish and Sgt. Kevin Holbrook talked to the church’s leadership about fear — and fighting back. They had gathered in a backroom to discuss the creation of a security team and response plan to protect the congregation.
The new reality, the police officers said, calls for adding a layer of vigilance to the church’s general culture and spirit of inclusion. Now, parishioners need to know alternate exits. They need to make eye contact with visitors. They need to set up patrol details. But the most important strategy, the officers said, is knowing how to react if attacked: Run, hide or fight. Run to safety; hide from the attacker; or, as a last resort, fight back with anything available.
“A fire extinguisher makes a huge cloud, and if it gets on your skin, it burns. If it gets in your eyes, it blinds. And if you get hit in the head with it, it will knock you out,” Parrish said. “If you have to fight, know you’re fighting for your life.”
The Gainesville High School student arrested a few weeks before this training session was on a mission to kill Bethel church members, the authorities said. In a carefully orchestrated plan, they said, the teenage girl acquired butcher knives, researched online, took meticulous notes and had scouted the church’s location on Mill Street.
On the day she went to the church — either to launch the attack or to collect more information, the police said — she found an empty building. Authorities said the girl’s plan was likely inspired by Dylann Roof, the convicted white supremacist who murdered nine worshippers during Bible study at a church of the same denomination, Emanuel AME, in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Gainesville plot was foiled by classmates who told a high school counselor about the girl’s notebook, which contained the chilling plans. Police said the level of detail in her notes may have saved Bethel.
“I drive by my church all the time, and it is unsettling to think about what could have happened,” said Cornelia Martin, 66, who has attended the church for almost four decades. “Now we are doing the training sessions, and I keep asking myself, ‘How did we get here?’ I used to walk in happy and free. I still enjoy services, but now I have to try to size up someone I don’t know because I do not know their intentions.”
The student, who has not been identified by the authorities, was charged with criminal intent to commit murder.
Though police said her plan was racially motivated, she was not charged with a hate crime because the state is one of four across the country with no such law. But after the planned attack was made public, a group of black legislators announced that they would continue to push for a bill to create stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by hate.
Legislation that would create harsher penalties for those convicted of targeting a victim because of race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or mental or physical disability was approved by the Georgia House in March with bipartisan support. It has not yet been voted on in the Senate but may be taken up when legislators reconvene next week.
On Sunday, about 30 members sat in Bethel’s pews, along with a Jewish woman who attended services to support the congregation. Rizer-Pool preached about starting the new decade with a positive attitude and returning to Bible study, which had been suspended since the threat was uncovered.
“It’s time for us to move on from what happened,” she said. “We have to be smart and move on with no fear.”