News of last week’s terror attack — and that’s what it was — at the Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine dead during a Bible study session has rightfully yielded both our outrage and our sorrow. In the African American community it has sounded echoes of the bleakest days of the 1960s. In the Jewish community, it called to mind scenes like the more recent terror attacks on a synagogue in Jerusalem and a Jewish school in France.
Our collective attention, and the priority of our government officials, is and should be focused first on bringing as much comfort as possible to the victims’ families and communities and bringing the perpetrator to justice. But the next task must be to ensure that we’re proactively doing everything we can to deter the likelihood, or at least diminish the severity, of possible future assaults on houses of worship and other faith institutions.
No matter which religion we believe in or where we worship, we all have the right to defend ourselves and our communities from those who would do us harm.
Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Philadelphia’s Bethel AME, said his church “recently went through a major upgrade on our security protocols.” But more African American congregations need to consider further steps similar to those we’ve taken in the Jewish community to protect our institutions and places of worship. The Jewish community took the initiative several years ago and our national organizations formed the Secure Community Network, “the first national nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to homeland security initiatives on behalf of the American Jewish community.” SCN is recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a model for groups nationwide on threat information sharing and security initiatives. As a community umbrella entity, it helps local institutions improve security and prepare for incidents by consulting with experts and learning from peer institutions.
There’s also a critical role for federal, state and local governments to play in assisting houses of worship and other nonprofits—often strapped for resources—secure their facilities and thus keep their constituents safe.
On the federal level, the Jewish community has received assistance from the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. Created in the wake of 9/11, NSGP has, to date, provided nearly $150 million in grants to assist nonprofits in purchasing security materials ranging from fences and bollards — those vertical posts that deter vehicle traffic — to surveillance equipment and shatterproof windows. Jewish institutions nationwide have used these funds to better protect their congregants, students and visitors.
Funding for this important program has been cut in recent years, but our organization and a broad base of coalition partners have been working with Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and others to return the NSGP to its full $25 million funding. We’re pleased to see that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved this proposal just last week. Now, in light of last week’s terrible shooting at Emanuel, it seems even more critical for Congress to not only rapidly approve the DHS bill so this aid is available to all at-risk nonprofits, but also increase its funding so that the program can adequately serve all communities in need.
A few states — among them, New York and Pennsylvania — have also begun to provide security grants to nonprofits. Similar legislation is pending in New Jersey, specifically for nonpublic religious and secular schools, and in New York City, where the mayor just pledged additional resources to secure African American churches. These pending measures must be passed and implemented, and other states and localities need to follow suit.
And law-enforcement agencies at all levels must review their practices and engage fully with faith and civic institutions in their communities to mitigate threats.
Houses of worship should be sanctuaries — not targets for those committed to attacking fellow Americans based on race or religion.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously spoke of four freedoms all people should enjoy; two of them were freedom of worship and freedom from fear. In the shadow of last week’s tragedy in Charleston, and recent attacks in the global Jewish community and elsewhere, these two fundamental freedoms have become intrinsically intertwined. Outrage and empathy are important and salutary emotions, but our sense of horror must give rise to practical steps to better ensure that all who engage in freedom of worship are indeed free from fear.