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Church leaders discuss history, security in wake of foiled attack on black church
Bishop calls for locked doors while local officials tout ‘lighthouse for social justice’
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Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, pictured Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, is located on Mill Street in Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman

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.

Johnson said many of the Newtown meetings and other community gatherings have taken place at Bethel AME, which police said was the target of the attack. 

“The doors were always open, so the fact that this young lady, even without her knowing it, targeted Bethel AME, it is really significant because of the role that the church has played in the community down through the years. It has been more like a lighthouse for social justice, because we have had many strategy meetings, many community meetings there,” Johnson said.

Gainesville Police said the attack on the Mill Street church was planned by a white 16-year-old girl, who is now in custody. Police said the girl collected several kitchen knives as part of a methodically planned attack on churchgoers. 

Police charged her with criminal attempt to commit murder, and Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh announced Wednesday, Nov. 20, he had filed a motion to move the girl’s case to Superior Court.

Gainesville school resource officers learned Friday, Nov. 15, that a Gainesville High School student had a notebook with “detailed plans to commit murder” at the church.

The girl has not been identified by authorities. She was transported to the Regional Youth Detention Center.

The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus announced Thursday it 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.

Bethel is in the same denomination as Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a 2015 mass shooting left nine black church members dead. That denominational link played a role in the Georgia investigation, Gainesville Police Cpl. Jessica Van said Wednesday.

White supremacist Dylann Roof was convicted of killing the nine black church members during their Bible study lesson at the Charleston church. Roof later told FBI agents he had hoped the killings would start a race war. He has been sentenced to death.

A prominent church leader also took note of the connection.

“I do have a concern that AME churches are being targeted,” said Bishop Reginald Jackson, whose district includes the Gainesville church.

Jackson on Wednesday was preparing to send memos to the more than 500 AME congregations in Georgia with one recommendation that reflects the heightened threats of the times: “When they start the service, they need to make sure that all the doors are locked,” he said.

He said he plans to send similar messages to other AME bishops across the country, urging them to enhance security.

AME churches may draw the ire of white supremacists not only because of their demographics, but also because their leaders have traditionally been outspoken on social justice issues, Jackson said. Those strong stands can put them at odds with extremists.

“I think that may be because the history of the (African Methodist Episcopal) church and its role in civil rights and social activism that may be part of it, but it does seem that churches that get attacked are (African Methodist Episcopal),” Jackson said.

St. Paul United Methodist Church pastor Robert King said it was “heartbreaking but also scary” to hear the news of the planned attack. He said he had reached out to Bethel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Michelle Rizer-Pool, who is a friend and colleague.

“I just let her know that we and the St. Paul family are praying for her, and anything we can do to be of support to her she certainly has,” King said.

As a leader in the spiritual community, King said he feels it is important to “be part of bringing that healing and wholeness to our community.”

“I think one of the things that’s been important for me in our life and role in ministry at St. Paul is to work with other churches and organizations to see how we might, as the hands and feet of Christ, be positioned to heal and to mend the brokenness in those who are so filled with such a hatred and fear of others that are different from them,” he said.

King said our society must address the roots of fear and hatred “kind of like things floating around like toxins in the air.”

“There is in our society such a fear and a hatred that is just consuming people at this time, and people just staying to themselves and not coming together in so many ways,” he said.

The diversity of the community, King said, is a “blessing” and something to stand on “as we love and reach out to each other.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.