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Sacred security: Churches adjust after acts of vandalism

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Churches across the country are taking steps to keep their houses of worship safe and their properties secure.

Some of them probably noticed CNN’s report last week about Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a congregation of more than 4,000 members in multiple locations that is seeking state approval to create its own police force, complete with weapons and arrest powers. 

Most churches in Indiana may not go that far. They are, however, working more often with law enforcement to stop burglaries, theft and vandalism.

“Churches are becoming more vigilant about reporting crimes and illegal activity,” Sgt. Kendale Adams, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), told the Recorder. 

Going by recent news reports, it appears that churches and other houses of worship have reason to be more watchful. A steady stream of congregations in central Indiana has reported damage to property and other acts of vandalism since last fall, with no end in sight during the fourth month of 2017.

This month, for example, two churches in Muncie were vandalized with offensive graffiti. Members of one congregation, Emmanuel Temple Church, arrived for a recent Sunday service to find large black letters spray-painted on the side of their building with the words, “What’s a God?” Near the graffiti was a satanic symbol.

Less than a mile away, Calvary Baptist Church reported finding graffiti on its building, this time with profane language about God and President Donald Trump, as well as an anarchy sign. It marked the second time in a week that church had been struck.

Although both churches are predominantly African-American, police say there is no evidence that race was a factor in the incidents. Currently there are no suspects, but Muncie police have been investigating the vandalism along with the FBI. 

“It was not just an attack on Emmanuel Temple, but an attack on the Body of Christ,” Emmanuel’s pastor, Donna Smith, told reporters. “We feel the person was not in his right mind. If he had a sound mind, he wouldn’t be doing the things he does.”

Smith added that she has been encouraged by the support of other churches that have helped remove the graffiti.

In Indianapolis last month, someone kicked in the front door and burglarized Faith Builders Missionary Baptist Church on 30th Street near Andrew J. Brown Avenue. Debris was left scattered on the floor in a likely search for money. It was the second time the church had been hit, following another break-in where a thief stole Halloween candy set aside for children of the church. 

Although frustrated with the burglaries, Faith Builders’ Rev. Willie Moses said the crimes will not drive his congregation from the neighborhood. He is among many pastors who say crime just strengthens their resolve to serve the community and reach troubled people who are in spiritual turmoil. 

“If we take the churches out of this area, what are we going to have left?” Moses asked. “It does not deter me. In fact, it encourages me even more to stay in this area.”

National headlines were made in February after the head of a Jesus statue in front of Cottage Avenue Pentecostal Fellowship was removed twice. The head of the statue has since been returned to the south-side church.

Some people may remember earlier times when some churches, particularly Catholic parishes, left their doors open well into the evening hours, allowing individuals to visit candlelit altars for moments of prayer and discreetly conduct confessions with clergy. 

Pastor N.P. Urshan is among those who believe those days may be long gone. His south-side church was recently vandalized when multiple sets of tire tracks were left on a lot used for youth sports.

“It seems people don’t have much conscience about the work of a church,” Urshan said in a recent local television interview, adding that his congregation is trying to help people on a limited budget. “People used to have a greater reverence for the spirituality of a church and a respect for that.” 

 

What can be done?

Echoing that same view, Briarwood Presbyterian Church, the mega church in Alabama that has several locations and a school, says it is difficult to hire enough off-duty police officers, which churches often do to take care of security concerns.

In a statement, Briarwood said it needs to have its own group of police to prevent tragedies such as the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the 2015 murder of nine people by a white supremacist at an African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina. 

Although a measure approving Briarwood’s police force has been passed by Alabama’s Senate, some organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say a faith-based police department approved by the state could violate the Constitution’s mandate of separation between church and state.

In any event, many congregations do not have the manpower and financial resources that a church Briarwood’s size may have, and having a police group may not be a realistic option for them. Neither is having members watch their building 24 hours a day. 

IMPD’s Adams has advice on how those congregations can increase their security. 

“It can be done by doing simple things, in much the same way we tell homeowners,” he said. “The goal is to make it more challenging for vandalism to occur by fortifying the property.”

Adams’ suggestions include installing a surveillance system with security cameras and alarms that could scare off burglars. Another step is fencing around buildings and air conditioning units to prevent theft, as well as installing brighter lighting so nearby residents can better spot suspicious activity at night. 

When asked if IMPD has noticed more crimes against churches, Adams said he believes there has been no increase.

“Churches are choosing to report those incidents more than they did in the past,” he stated. “Especially in the tense political times we are living in today.”

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