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‘We have seen a miracle’: Bethel AME gathers in wake of foiled attack
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The Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool welcomes media into Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church on Sunday, Nov. 24, in Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman

“On the corner of Mill Street and McDonald, on the corner of faith and hope, on the corner of grace and mercy, we have seen a miracle.”

The members of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church affirmed the words of the Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool Sunday, Nov. 24, as the small congregation gathered nine days after police said they foiled a knife attack planned against the congregation.

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From the Civil Rights Movement to the continued work of the Newtown Florist Club, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church in Gainesville built a “solid foundation of social justice work in the community,” the Rev. Rose Johnson said the day after news broke of a thwarted attack by a high school student. - photo by Nick Bowman

Gainesville school resource officers learned Friday, Nov. 15, that a white, 16-year-old girl had a notebook with “detailed plans to commit murder” at the church.

Investigators believe she took knives with her when she first visited the church intending to “launch the attack,” but “by divine intervention, at the time she went to the church there was no one there,” Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said last week.

The pastor began with a reading from Joshua: “Do not be afraid or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Rizer-Pool said her mind, heart and soul have been like a rollercoaster since the call from police telling her of the foiled attack.

“It did not happen, which makes me want to run the race even the more, because God is with us,” she said.

Gathering on the sidewalk as worshipers entered the Mill Street church, a handful of people held signs showing support.

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Supporters of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church stand outside the church on Sunday, Nov. 24, before a Sunday service in Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman

“We just want to show the community that they’re not alone. Personally, I organized this because I didn’t want the black community to think all white people are created equal. Everybody’s not like that, and I wanted the community to see that there are plenty of good people who stand with them, who cry with them and who will come to support them in this difficult time,” Alana Watkins said, who also serves as circulation manager for the Forsyth County News.

Watkins said it was a joint effort between Hall County Democrats and Indivisible Lumpkin.

“We didn’t want to bombard the church. We just want to show them they don’t have to be afraid to come to church. No one should be in fear to come to church. You should be able to worship as you choose,” she said.

Spiritual leaders and concerned citizens from the Gainesville community and afar attended the Sunday service to offer their support. 

“It’s been overwhelming in some ways, but at the same time, it lets you know that we are still a nation that loves and take care and want to support one another. Because we recognize that what happens to one happens to us all,” Rizer-Pool said before the service.

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Supporters of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church stand across the street from the church on Sunday, Nov. 24, before a Sunday service in Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman

Bishop Reginald Jackson, who is the presiding prelate for the Sixth Episcopal District, attended the service. Jackson previously told The Times he planned to send a letter to more than 500 AME churches regarding security concerns.

“It is only by the providential grace of God and his enduring mercy that we gather at Bethel this morning not to grieve but to give thanks,” Jackson said.

In a time when “division and hate” is rising, Jackson praised the church for responding with “prayer and forgiveness.”

“You have demonstrated Christian values and have sought to overcome evil with good,” he said.

But forgiveness, Jackson said, does not mean there is no consequence. 

Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh filed a motion last week to have the case moved to Superior Court. The Times reached out to Hall County Juvenile Court last week to find if a hearing had been scheduled but received no response.

“This plot must have a consequence, and that consequence must be more than a slap on the hand. This was not the plot of a childish mind and must not be treated as such. Justice demands that this young woman be treated like an adult,” Jackson said.

Darragh said there was no update Friday, Nov. 22, regarding the case moving to Superior Court.

“If not, she and others like her will be emboldened and motivated to continue to try and carry out these plots,” Jackson said.

Jackson also called on the state legislature to pass a hate crime law.

The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus announced Thursday, Nov. 21, it also plans to pursue a hate crime bill "that protects the civil rights of all and further penalizes those who commit hate crimes. We will not allow such actions to define us, but rather push us to do better and be better, ” according to a news release.

“We must not allow racism and hate to change us. Bethel made what was meant for evil turn out for good. May it make us closer, stronger, more faithful and more determined to live and serve God,” Jackson said.

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Media surround The Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church, on Sunday, Nov. 24, in Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman