About 20 people were gathered for a Wednesday morning prayer service at the 30,000-member World Changers Church in College Park, Ga., where Atlanta police say a 52-year-old former maintenance man walked into the sanctuary and fatally shot a church volunteer.
Atlanta police identified the suspect as Floyd Palmer, who worked in the facilities department at the church until August. He was taken into custody late Wednesday. Officials suggested that Palmer suffers from mental illness. The incident is prompting church leaders from Atlanta to Washington to examine their security.
“We have security, but our security officers are not armed. But that might have to change at a time when armed persons come into churches for robberies, deranged persons come in with issues,” said the Rev. Henry P. Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover. “I still go back to the issue where there is too much access to guns, and it is a very critical issue.”
At Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has nearly 10,000 members, the Rev. Grainger Browning said the church has long been conscious of security. “We have a retired Prince George’s County police officer who is head of our security, and we have four fulltime security persons and 10 law enforcement officers who volunteer on Sunday,” he said.
“In these times, people become very desperate,” the pastor said. “When you have a congregation of 8,000, there may be persons who are mentally unstable, and you never know what is going on.
“The church is commissioned to go out and minister to those in our society, but in doing so the church opens itself up to people who are yet to be made whole,” Browning added. “We have to make sure that those who attend services have a level of protection so that they can become what God wants them to be.”
Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a nonprofit ecumenical association, said there have been frequent incidents of theft and violence at area churches, “as they, by nature, are open and welcoming places.”
Lynch said the threats are numerous: Domestic violence victims have been confronted at their churches; persons with mental illness exhibit violent behavior toward church staff members; professional thieves looking for easy targets to steal purses, money and electronics make their way into churches. He added that in Ellicott City this year a homeless person well known to the church killed a pastor and church secretary who had been helping him.
“Churches are being left with little choice but to add more security personnel,” Lynch wrote in an e-mail, adding that churches still took great pains to be as open and welcoming to those in need.
But Davis, the pastor in Landover, said that what happened in Atlanta could happen at most of the churches in the Washington area because most have not hired security guards.
“Instances like this serve as a reminder to us that increasing security is something that we must consider as we move forward,” Davis said.
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