Church attendance may be declining, but more and more thieves seem to be stopping in to prey.
And when the Rev. George Gary arrived at his All Nations Baptist Church at 502 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Sunday morning he discovered that he had become the most recent victim in a flurry of burglaries and robberies at Washington churches. "I just couldn't whoop like I wanted to," Gary said of his preaching last Sunday. After all, they'd stolen his thunder -- the microphone and amplifier that had cost his small congregation $250.
The chalices and gold-embedded artifacts of churches have always been a target of thieves, but some local pastors say such incidents in Washington have increased right along with other types of crime. For instance, robberies were reported in six District churches last year. One man was mugged as he knelt to pray.
"At one time, people felt superstitious about church money, that taking it would be bad luck," said the Rev. Joseph Norton of St. Anthony's Church at 1029 Monroe St. NE, which has been robbed. "I don't think they feel that way today."
The incidents have convinced some worried pastors that in money-tight times even God's house demands more of secular security. Churches have added "panic buttons" to alert guards of a robbery, flood lights to their parking lots and set up volunteer patrols of church grounds.
"It's money spent they probably wouldn't have spent 10 years ago," said Thomas Walsh, president of Security Controls Alarms. He estimated that his company has installed alarm systems in about 20 local churches at costs from a few hundred dollars to $7,000.
At St. Anthony's, a ski-masked bandit walked into the church office, pointed a gun at the secretary and announced, "This is a hold-up!" The secretary, Alice Payne, stared at him, unbelieving, until the bandit grabbed $2,000 in church funds from her desk and ushered Payne and an elderly janitor who had wandered into the office into a book room.
"He had a hard time convincing them it was a holdup," Norton said. By the time a group of priests was convinced of the theft, Norton said, they ran outside only to catch a glimpse of the gunman as he rode off into the sunset in a white, two-door Thunderbird with Maryland tags.
Robbers also hit cafeteria workers at the United House of Prayer at 1123 Howard Rd. SE three times last summer, said Elder Sterling Green, assistant pastor. Green blamed the thefts on addicts congregated along the drug strip of nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
In July, two men robbed a group of women attending a parents meeting at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church at 2616 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. On New Year's Day, 1980, at St. Anthony's, a man praying alone in the chapel was yoked off his knees by a juvenile who then stole his wallet.
Perhaps the most profound, although subtle, change resulting from the thefts has been one of attitude.
Norton said he now warns solitary worshippers to watch for thieves while they pray. "There is a general feeling that you have to take every precaution," he said. The fear of robbery has also stopped some people from seeking the solitude of afternoon worship, he said.
"People would just drop in [the chapel] at odd times. Women out shopping or coming home from work would stop in for a moment to visit the Lord. They don't do anymore," he said. "At one time, no one would have thought they'd get mugged in the church."
Green is so convinced that churches are now common targets of theft that his church members now screen visitors before admitting them to evening services.
"We've pretty much locked the doors rather than let them stand open as we did in the past," he said. "We let in people we know one by one. It's very regrettable, but the crimes appear to be on the increase. Years ago, people wouldn't dare violate a church sanctuary but that attitude has changed." p
Juanita Gilberts, a member of St. Matthews "all my life," said she was shocked to learn of the robbery at the church where two men, claiming to have guns, stormed a meeting and began collecting pocketbooks.
"I just don't see how anybody would have that kind of nerve," Gilberts said, "but I know we have a sick society."
Fannie Parker got the message at the former Holy Trinity Fire Baptized Holiness Church at First and Randolph Streets NW two years ago. At a Mother's Day service there, a shotgun-toting bandit marched to the front of the church and announced a stick-up. "We kept on with the program," said Parker, who is a District police officer. "It didn't dawn on us he was robbing the church."
When the gunman left after robbing the church and blasting a hole in the back wall, Parker said she took her revolver from her purse and chased him through alleys until her high heel shoes tripped her up.
"They'll get their justice in the end," she said. "I don't believe the Lord will just let you get away with that."
Meanwhile though, the church has moved to Maryland.