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Lowcountry religious leaders seek protection for houses of worship amid growing threats of violence

Police tape surrounds the parking lot behind the AME Emanuel Church as FBI forensic experts work the crime scene, Friday, June 19, 2015 where nine people where shot by Dylann Storm Roof, 21, two days prior, in Charleston, S.C. The current brick Gothic revival edifice, completed in 1891 to replace an earlier building heavily damaged in an earthquake, was a mandatory stop for the likes of Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, Emanuel was not just a church for the black community.
Stephen B. Morton/AP
FR56856 AP
File- Police tape surrounds the parking lot behind the AME Emanuel Church as FBI forensic experts work the crime scene, Friday, June 19, 2015. Nine people were shot to death two days prior in Charleston, S.C.

Charleston County religious leaders met with officials from the Department of Homeland Security earlier this month as the feds warn of an increased risk of attacks on houses of worship.

Just outside Charleston, a city known for church bells and steeples, dozens of religious leaders pack a public library to hear from the Department of Homeland Security how to protect their congregations.

The federal agency warns houses of worship face of an increased threat of attack because of the escalating war between Israel and Hamas. Religious leaders worry not only about a recent rise in hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim people, but continuing threats against Black and LGBTQ communities.

“So how do you not scare people to death but say we need to pay attention to this,” asks Ellen Davis with Bethel United Methodist Church.

Also in attendance is Jerome Taylor from Greater Zion A.M.E. church in Awendaw. He’s a retired Charleston deputy chief of police who served the city for nearly 50 years.

“Overall, when you look at a church, it should be a safe sanctuary,” says Taylor. “And as we know that is not true.”

Taylor was on the force when a white gunman murdered nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015. The massacre weighs heavily on the minds of many in the room, including Gloria Johnson with the Charleston First Assembly of God.

“Oh yes, it can happen,” says Johnson. “I mean, when you, you know, you’re not even thinking about it. Here it comes.”

The murders at Mother Emanuel shook the nation. But there have since been dozens more violent attacks on houses of worship in the eight years since.

Security can be a tough topic for such sacred spaces, not to mention expensive. Johnson is concerned because several of her congregants carry concealed weapons to protect their church.

“If we do have such an incident, and police have to come into the building and we have five people that’s carrying a gun, how do they surrender? How do they reveal?”

Officials with the Department of Homeland security advise Johnson armed parishioners need to alert and work with local police as part of training before an attack. Otherwise, they could be mistaken as a suspect.

The federal officials offering guidance asked that we not record most of their three-hour workshop as they try to keep the tactics they teach confidential. But broadly, they preach prevention, security, and the unthinkable, how to survive an attack.

Houses of worship, the officials say, are extremely vulnerable. By nature, they’re meant to welcome.

“It is difficult because we’re there to worship,” says Lasonya Smalls with Mount Zion A.M.E. in Charleston. “You still have to be cognizant of who else is in the church and what their intentions are.”

The federal officials urge religious leaders to trust their instincts, and report anything unusual. Ellen Davis is encouraged by what she’s learned about prevention.

“Identifying people before there’s they have some kind of behavior, maybe they're withdrawn, whatever it might be.”

Lauren Knapp, the counter threat manager for Charleston County Public Safety, helped to organize the workshop. She says protecting people from hate crimes is personal.

Knapp was working as an intelligence officer for the Charleston County Sheriff Office in 2015 when she found a strange letter written by the gunman in the Mother Emanuel shootings. At the time, he was being held at the jail awaiting trial.

“I will tell you what I did behind the scenes initiated from a Charleston girl,” says Knapp. “I was angry, and I was upset, and I didn’t ever want it to ever happen again.”

The letter Knapp intercepted led to a search of the killer’s jail cell and the discovery of a manifesto he’d written in the weeks following the murders. In it, the white supremacist showed no remorse for shooting Black parishioners while they prayed. Knapp read the killer’s words to jurors before they sentenced him to death.

“I made it a force in my life to do whatever I could do to identify people who may try to replicate what he did,” says Knapp.

Knapp went on to work for the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, D.C. She came home to Charleston three years ago to continue her work here, arming people with information to help keep people safe from hate.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.