Every Sunday morning, my husband and I stand at the front doors to our church in a renovated strip mall in Athens, Ga. We’re the “greeters,” shaking hands or hugging everybody to welcome them.
College students. Moms. Dads. Grandparents. Kids. Homeless folks.
Calvary Bible Church celebrated our five-year anniversary Sunday, just before hearing about the tragedy in Texas that killed at least 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
We were formed to be a multiracial church serving the community of the University of Georgia and Athens. With the recent church shootings, including the 2015 attack in Charleston, S.C., tied to racial tension, I believe we could be a target.
How can we be a welcoming church when the next person at the door could be a gunman?
Every Sunday, I walk in with that thought in my mind, even as I put myself in the position to be the first one shot.
I do it because I’ve been to churches where you could enter and leave without anyone saying hello. I do it because I want others to experience the church I have seen flourish in a college town.
I believe that starts with us, the greeters.
Over the years, we’ve greeted people who have celebrated big moments — engagements, athletic victories, births. We’ve greeted strangers who walked across the street from the extended-stay motel. We’ve greeted a man who told us he had been a drug addict who lived near the dumpsters behind our church for a couple of weeks.
On Sunday, we had about 150 kids and adults.
Every time I’m there, I try to allay any fears with what I know.
We have an informal security plan. A police officer who regularly attends watches for signs of a shooter. He’s often at the door with us, chatting but checking out those entering. At least two other men in our church, both fathers, carry guns. Our pastor, a former college football player, and the former professional athletes who attend could easily tackle someone.
Even our pastor, Thomas Settles, admits there’s fear. He recognizes he has a responsibility to protect churchgoers but not to let fear and intimidation keep us from welcoming both those we know and those we don’t.
“People are hurting. They need that hug at the front door,” he says. “To us, that’s a gospel imperative that we are allowing the love of Christ to be shown, even though it isn’t easy and it’s super uncomfortable.”
At the entrance to the children’s area, an automatic locking door is next to a colorful Garden of Eden-inspired scene that college art students and professors painted for us. Our child-care workers undergo background checks. Recently, we created a process where kids can leave only if the parent or person picking them up shows a bar code.
People seem to appreciate the system, but I worry about explaining it to parents who are already reluctant to visit a church. What if they don’t like the idea of their kid being behind locked doors during the hour-long service or signing up for a bar code?
Even though we have a children’s area, we have a number of families who have their children, from toddlers to teenagers, sit with them in the service. On Sunday, one of those parents joked about the noisy corner where many of them congregate. I’ve started to wonder, “Do the parents make that choice so they can protect or even die with their kids?”
We’ve tried to recruit more greeters in case we are out of town on a Sunday. After asking for weeks, only three people offered. We thought more would want to do it. Maybe it’s because they need to be at church about 15 minutes early. But maybe others are just plain scared, too.
Being welcoming and open doesn’t begin with songs or the sermon. It doesn’t allow bad people to hold us hostage. It shouldn’t force us to change. It begins at the door.
“Y’all are the first impression,” my pastor tells me. “Our impression should be that all are welcome regardless of race, gender, socioeconomics. We want people to know that you can come as you are, and from the moment they get there to the moment they leave, we want people to feel the love of Christ.”
I tell my pastor that we are really the “first line of defense.”
I don’t know whether I want the role anymore.
Lori Johnston is an Athens, Ga.-based writer. Follow her on Twitter @fastcopy.