No Sacred Space: Worship at Risk

No Sacred Space: Worship at Risk

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

There was a time when most church doors were left unlocked. If someone needed shelter or a place to pray or contemplate, they could slip into a sanctuary for some quiet reflection. Most of today’s houses of worship are not only locked and alarmed, many have their own armed security and safety teams ready to respond to violence. Attacks on churches began reaching record numbers in 2023 consistent with a years-long trend of rising vandalism, arson, and shootings.

On February 11, 2024, Genesse Ivonne Moreno opened fire at the arena housing Joel Osteen’s Houston, TX Lakewood church, and was killed in an exchange with off-duty police officers present. The rifle found at the scene reportedly had pro-Palestinian writing on it.

In addition to the highest profile incidents, there are many more assaults, disturbances, property damage, threats, and arson attempts that make no national headlines. No faith group is exempt because each represents an ideal that can enrage an attacker. Chapels, temples, mosques, gurdwaras, and religious educational facilities are all vulnerable.

Also in February Zackary Plowman, 39, found the Community Fellowship Moravian Church in North Carolina, a place to hide on a Saturday after shooting 3 people in Lexington. On Sunday morning he encountered the pastor of the church and the pastor’s wife. Plowman kidnapped the couple at knifepoint, stealing their car, and later dropped them off at a different location where they were found uninjured. The suspect has been arrested.

In Hendersonville, TN the Luna Lane Church of Christ had to cancel services due to massive vandalism affecting the atrium, nursery, lobby, and restrooms, along with flooding in the fellowship hall and classrooms. That investigation is still open and no motive or suspect is known at the time of this writing.

A Tulsa, OK man, upset over his marriage, was arrested after making threats to shoot up a church in the city. A witness reported a conversation in which the suspect claimed he had an automatic weapon and intended to kill everyone in the church. Investigating police officers recovered a weapon and ammunition.

A teenage resident of a small community in eastern Colorado was sentenced to six years in prison for plotting to carry out shootings at multiple schools and churches in the Colorado Springs area. The teen confessed to planning the attack and several planning documents were discovered. Authorities believe the arrest prevented a serious attempt to complete the crimes.

A 32-year-old man in Pasadena, CA has been apprehended after a church arson and other criminal activity. The suspect was connected to two separate arson fires at Dream Church. He was arrested during an attempted carjacking in the church parking lot.

Elsewhere, a Cumberland, MD man was arrested for burglary and malicious destruction of property, following reports of him discharging fire extinguishers, breaking light bulbs, and stealing food at a Lutheran church. A 22-year-old male was arrested for a shooting at a Catholic church in San Francisco in which, fortunately, no one was injured. Teens were involved in a stabbing in the parking lot of a Chico CA church near Chico State University. All of the events cited have happened in the first two months of 2024, according to Keith Graves, a church security expert who publishes a newsletter on the issue.

Motives to explain this increase will vary. On a societal level, the division over issues like abortion, support for Israel, racial tension, or gay rights can shine a spotlight on a particular group or facility. An attack on the building or occupants can have symbolic meaning, just as any target of a terrorist would have.

Individually, churches are places where domestic violence victims may have sought help, distressed persons suffering from mental illness or other life crises are attracted to churches, and even criminals evading capture may seek refuge there.

Despite federal hate crimes and a federal task force on places of worship experiencing violence, many legislative attempts are being made to limit lawful weapon possession in churches and even restricting church security teams. People of faith have a right to be safe in their places of worship and only the most extreme of pacifists would argue against defending worshipers.