By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
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.'Will I Be Able to Save Her?'
Nathaniel Fuller sees the shooting today as clearly as he did seven months ago.
At the time, it seemed like fate that Fuller, a doctor with emergency room experience, had arrived late to church. From across the parking lot, he saw Patricia Kelly talking to her husband, who had just moved out of their home in Rockville.
Tight finances had strained their marriage of nine years, court testimony would later reveal, and Kevin Kelly, 53, suspected there was another man, something Patricia's family adamantly denies.
All of it led to their argument in the parking lot -- and then gunshots.
In the seconds that followed, an off-duty police officer subdued Kevin while Fuller ran to help Patricia. He heard her take what sounded like three shallow, fading breaths. As he began performing CPR, the doctor silently asked God: "Will this be the difference? Will I be able to save her?"
Months later -- long after the ambulance rushed her to a hospital, long after the 52-year-old legal secretary was pronounced dead -- Fuller found himself constantly replaying this scene in his head. He had lost patients before, but this was different.
He had known this woman, exchanged greetings with her at services for years before her blood came to be smeared on his hands, mouth and suit.
Plagued by the vision, Fuller asked God to restore peace at his church and in his heart. But just as peace seemed within grasp, Kelly's trial and conviction this month and his approaching sentencing this week have stirred everything back up.
The doctor still doesn't understand why God let Patricia die, why He had placed Fuller so nearby if not to save her.
"I've prayed and asked," Fuller said. "I haven't received an answer yet. I don't know if I ever will."'We Lost Our Innocence'
Although no federal agency or law enforcement group keeps track of killings at houses of worship, some people recording cases on their own believe that there has been a disturbing uptick in recent years.
One of those keeping count is Carl Chinn, who started compiling a database of such attacks shortly after a gunman burst into the Christian organization Focus on the Family where he was working in 1996 and took hostages. Eleven years later, Chinn was working security for the New Life Church in Colorado when another gunman appeared and killed two people.
By Chinn's count, fatal attacks at houses of worship have grown from a handful a decade ago to at least 32 last year -- a number that includes people killed inside the buildings as well as homicides that take place on church steps and in parking lots. But he acknowledges that it's become easier to track police reports and news stories online in recent years, which could partly account for the perceived increase.
Randy McAlister, a police sergeant in Minnesota doing similar research at Concordia University, also thinks church violence is increasing and likens it to school shootings a decade ago: on its way to becoming a persistent phenomenon.
One reason might be that in an increasingly high-alert world, churches remain an easy target. In cases of domestic violence, such as the incident at People's Church, perpetrators know that once a week, their victim will show up at a specific time, perhaps even park in a certain spot or sit in a certain section.
Compounding the problem is the prominent role many houses of worship occupy in today's volatile culture wars.
"You see the language being thrown around . . . people demonizing each other," said the Rev. Chris Buice, whose liberal Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tenn., was attacked by a right-wing gunman last year. The shooter walked into the sanctuary in the middle of a production of "Annie" and pulled a 12-gauge shotgun out of a guitar case, killing two people and injuring seven.
But many cases remain enigmas.
The killings at New Life Church in 2007, for example, were carried out by a gunman with no direct ties to the church. Matthew Murray killed two people and wounded three before a church security guard shot him. He then turned the gun on himself.
"I don't know if we'll ever know why Matthew Murray attacked us," the Rev. Brady Boyd said.
The gunman's impact, however, remains. Even now, two years later, parishioners arriving for Sunday worship pass police cars stationed at the entrance.
"We've begun to heal. We've even grown," Boyd said. "But in some ways, New Life is never going to be the same. We lost our innocence."'God Has Called Us to Love'
In the days that followed Patricia Kelly's shooting, People's Church also struggled with trauma. Its leaders convened a meeting with counselors and psychologists that more than 150 members attended. A prayer team walked through the church with anointing oil, asking God to break the spirit of fear.
At the next Sunday service, the Rev. Haywood Robinson III spoke about how Christians are tested and the importance of faith in such trying times. He also preached forgiveness for the shooter, telling the congregation he had offered to meet and pray with Kevin Kelly.
"There's probably people here who hate him for what he did," Robinson said. "But God has called us to love and forgive."
Some weren't ready for that, including Lefern Brooks, one of Patricia's closest friends. She had taken in Patricia's only child, Iesha Jennings, 17, in the days after the shooting.
For a while, Brooks simply stopped attending People's Church.
"I just couldn't go near the place," she said. She couldn't help looking for bloodstains or chalk outlines -- any outward sign of the trauma she still felt inside.
So for two months, she and her daughter Chelsea, 16, tried other churches, but in the end, they found themselves returning to People's. "As painful as it was, it was also the place where we had experienced the most outpouring of love and support," she said.
Brooks was the only church member who sat through all three days of Kelly's trial this month. She spent most of it studying Kelly's face for any shred of remorse. She found none.
And now that Kelly has been convicted of first-degree murder, Brooks has to prepare a statement to the judge for his sentencing Friday. She has prayed and struggled over what to say about this man and how his actions have affected her faith, her church and the daughter of her closest friend.
"I've been trying to work it all out," she said. "I've prayed that I could forgive this man. But I'll be honest; I haven't yet. I don't know how long it will take before I can."