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After Charleston, Houses of Worship Debate Saving Souls vs. Saving Lives

On a recent Sunday morning, a white Jewish guy wearing a backpack entered the First African Methodist Episcopal Church: Bethel in Harlem, without a problem. A black usher wearing white gloves greeted him warmly at the door and gave him a service pamphlet. The young man found a seat on a plush green bench and, with the June 17 terrorist attack that left nine black worshippers dead in Charleston, South Carolina, in mind, awaited suspicious looks from the congregants around him.

None came.

In fact, all he received were welcoming smiles and handshakes, and a whole bunch of people saying, “Hi, neighbor.”

The same was true for a white Jewish girl — a Forward reporter, like the visitor to the church — who entered Manhattan’s 96th Street Mosque, initially sans headscarf, for Friday prayers.

Meanwhile, a number of synagogues across the country have stepped up their security measures in the wake of the Charleston shooting. And many of those, especially in urban areas like New York City, already have several security mechanisms in place, thanks in part to their vigorous use of a program from the Department of Homeland Security that provides grants for security devices to religious organizations thought to be at risk of terrorist attacks.

Five black church leaders contacted by the Forward were all unaware of this program — yet keenly interested in it when they were told about it. But applications from churches, should they start piling up at the DHS office, could face hurdles.

The DHS program’s regulations, written with strong Jewish communal input after 9/11, do not clearly define what constitutes a terror threat. Within just the past week, following the Charleston church slaughter, six predominantly black churches in the South have suffered serious fires. Arson is suspected so far in three of them, and hate crime investigations are being conducted as a result. But should these burnings turn out to be racially motivated arson cases, it’s unclear if they would qualify for the program.

For one, the regulations, written with 9/11 in mind, specify that to qualify, religious institutions must be located in one of the 28 federally designated urban areas that are considered to be at higher risk of a terrorist attack.

That would disqualify Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a shooter seeking to ignite a race war shot down the nine black worshippers. For the same reason, only one of the three burned black Southern churches where arson is suspected could qualify, should race hatred turn out to be a reason for their being torched.

Nevertheless, domestic terrorists, often motivated by racial hatred or by militia-inspired anti-government ideologies, have frequently hit smaller localities, as Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City in 1995, when he bombed a federal building, killing 168 people and injuring more than 600.

Asked how experts distinguish between domestic and foreign terrorism threats when it comes to assessing eligibility for these DHS grants, a department spokesman replied, “Unfortunately, I can’t discuss details of how threat levels are determined and how we distinguish.”

At the same time, regulations that were seemingly influenced by 9/11 render many synagogues in large urban areas eligible. One rule specifies that institutions applying have to have been threatened or attacked previously; or if not the institutions themselves, then “closely related organizations (within or outside the United States)” that have been threatened “by a terrorist organization, network, or cell.”

That rule enables many synagogues to apply based on terrorist attacks on synagogues and other Jewish targets in Europe.

Last year, 94% of the $13 million in grants that DHS gave out went to Jewish organizations, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. It remains unclear though, whether this is due to barriers posed by the regulations, a lack of applications from Muslim and Christian organizations or more successful applications from Jewish groups.

But funding aside, Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities have differing cultural, psychological and practical responses when it comes to security.

“One reaction to Charleston that I’ve heard a lot is that churches and synagogues are put in a very difficult position because we want to be open to the community,” said Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El, the oldest synagogue in Michigan. “But the natural byproduct of that is that you expose yourself. Security should be designed to strike a balance between being appropriately welcoming and also being protective, because in today’s world you have to take that seriously, but I’m not sure anyone has a perfect balance between those two.”

In 2013, 10% of all hate crimes committed in the United States were anti-Jewish, according to the FBI. Roughly 32% targeted African-Americans. And about 2% targeted Muslims. But when it comes to their places of worship, many Jewish groups are more willing to respond by implementing stringent security measures — including metal detectors, armed guards, bag checks and physical pat-downs — and don’t see this protocol as affecting the atmosphere in their communities. Many black churches, on the other hand, are more concerned that tighter security compromises the welcoming, hospitable environment at the core of their mission.

The pastor of Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, in Philadelphia, Ernest Morris, said a group of volunteers and retired police officers work as a makeshift security force for the 5,000-person congregation. But “a place of worship is open to the public, so we would not dare put guards, police and scanning machines at the worship center.”

Beyond this concern for retaining a warm and welcoming religious atmosphere, some church leaders worry that all the current buzz about security is undermining a more urgent conversation about racism at large in America.

Call to Prayer: At Manhattan's 96th Street Mosque, the only security measure consists of hidden cameras. Image by Getty Images

“Mother Emmanuel [in Charleston] had security cameras, but the truth is, this was not a security issue,” said Mark Tyler, reverend of Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church. “They let him in, they invited him in, which is not unusual in AME churches. And anything short of making people go through metal detectors wouldn’t have been able to prevent this.”

Quoting the Rev. William Barber II, a prominent black minister in North Carolina, Tyler said, “The perpetrator has been caught, but the killer is still on the loose — the killer being American racism.”

Jackie Dupont-Walker, the social action commissions director for some 6,000 AME churches globally, found it troubling that people were so hyper-focused on security before the funeral services held for the nine victims had even commenced.

“I think it’s a little strange that we haven’t even had a chance to bury our people and you’re already talking about security,” Dupont-Walker said. “I just think that’s capitalism. We see a market and we go for it.”

At the JCC Manhattan, just one week after the shooting, security measures seemed to be business as usual — which is somewhat more thorough than what’s common at many non-Jewish religious establishments. A reporter from the Forward had to walk through a metal detector and pass her unassuming purse to a security guard before entering. Given recent history, these metal detectors may not be so unusual: In 2014, outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, in Overland Park, Kansas, an anti-Semitic former Ku Klux Klan leader murdered three people.

Security guards are an unremarkable yet comforting physical presence at Congregation Ansche Chesed, a prominent Conservative synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side. They’re posted immediately inside the lobby of the building, observing visitors but not confronting them.

Josh Hanft, executive director of Ansche Chesed, doesn’t feel that there’s an increased risk at his synagogue following the Charleston murders. But the congregation nonetheless has extensive security measures in place, many of which are funded through DHS grants.

“The grant has enabled us to put in a loudspeaker system to notify people on a moment’s notice of something happening in the building, to put in our surveillance cameras and to provide walkie-talkies for our front desk and security staff,” Hanft said. In the next round of grants, Ansche Chesed plans to ask for blast-proof curtains for its social hall, he added, to protect the large amount of glass there.

Ansche Chesed congregant David Pollock, who advises New York area synagogues on how to write these grant applications, said it’s crucial to distinguish between authorized and unauthorized personnel.

“What we always try to teach is that at any point, no unauthorized person should walk into your building,” said Pollock, who is associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York. The approach should not be overly aggressive, he said: “You don’t want someone with a ‘Who goes there?’ policy stopping someone from coming in. Any synagogue, church or mosque wants to be warm, welcoming, safe and secure.” But he stressed: “The fact that I want to keep you safe and secure in your spiritual home, that’s warm and welcoming! That means this institution cares about you.”

Among American Muslims, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has promoted various security measures and sent out packets advising mosques on how to increase security. The handbook, Best Practices for Mosque and Community Safety, includes information on how to handle armed intruders, bomb threats and suspicious packages. In 2014, CAIR urged mosques and Muslim institutions nationwide to apply for security grants from the DHS. Yet Debbie Almontaser, president of the Muslim Community Network, is aware of few mosques that have actually done so. The administration at one of New York’s largest mosques, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York — also called the 96th Street Mosque — was not even aware that these grants existed. The center’s sole security comes in the form of hidden cameras.

Even in the wake of Charleston, mosques embrace unfamiliar newcomers with seemingly few security concerns. “Anyone seeking God, you welcome them into your community,” Almontaser said.

As with some in the black community, concern about prejudice was a larger theme than a post-Charleston focus on security in interviews with Muslim leaders and their supporters. Muslim communities often represent a variety of racial origins — mostly African, South Asian and Middle Eastern — noted Imam Saad Jalloh, of the 96th Street Mosque. Jacob Bender, executive director of CAIR’s Philadelphia branch, said: “Certainly, the Muslim community, being targeted as it has by prejudice and Islamophobic bigotry, identifies with the victims at the black church at Charleston. I would say that the Muslim community also sees itself as just the latest immigrant group to be targeted by American xenophobia.”

At the First AME Church: Bethel on the last Sunday in June, the pastor, Henry Belin, gave an impassioned sermon about Charleston, David and Goliath, and pushing forward in the face of tragedy.

“There’s been a whole lot of conversation this past week about whether we should keep our church doors open,” Belin said. “And yes, we’re going to do some common sense things for security. But I’m going to tell you, we will keep the doors open.”

A few congregants rose to their feet. “That’s right!” they roared.

Contact Yardain Amron at [email protected]; Alexandra Levine at [email protected] and Madison Margolin at [email protected]


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