Bishop Reginald Jackson is the head of the African Methodist Episcopal Church region that includes some 500 houses of worship in Georgia. Last week, he was preparing to notify the congregations of those churches that they should lock their doors whenever services were being held so as to better secure themselves from the possibility of attack.
Let that sink in for a minute. Church leaders being told to close and lock their doors when the congregation gathers for worship, out of a fear that someone will enter and do harm during a church service.
That such a sad indictment of the times in which we live is the direct result of a threat posed here in Gainesville should be a clarion call for action and change.
Last week, police arrested a 16-year-old girl, charging her with criminal attempt to commit murder based on detailed plans she had made to attack members of the congregation of the Bethel AME church in Gainesville.
A 16-year-old girl.
The suspect is white. The congregations of AME churches are typically black. Police described the suspect as a racist motivated by hatred. They said she had gone to the church on one occasion with an assortment of knives to carry out her plan of attack, but the church was empty at the time. She planned to go back.
A 16-year-old girl.
She was arrested after someone at her school became aware of her plans and spoke up, alerting school officials and law enforcement to the potential threat. If there is a hero in this tragic story, it is the student or students who recognized the unspeakable horror of what was being contemplated and stepped forward to stop it. Had they not done so, we can only imagine the pain and suffering that might have resulted.
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Faced with such an unnerving set of events, it is hard to know where to start in trying to question how we got to such a sad place in time and where we go from here.
At this point, the legal system has not yet explored the evidence to determine innocence or guilt. Before it does, a determination must be made as to whether the suspect should be tried as an adult or as a juvenile.
The district attorney has recommended that she be tried as an adult in Superior Court, meaning that if she is convicted she would be subject to the sort of sentence imposed on adults rather than minors. We, too, think that is the place the case belongs.
The case has resulted in a renewed call for Georgia to pass a hate crime law; it is one of only a few states without such legislation. Lacking such a measure, we can only hope that if the evidence supports the charges, that the punishment is as severe as existing laws allow.
Gainesville’s police chief suggested last week the suspect may have been radicalized to the point of planning abhorrent action through interactions online. He also said reports of Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage at an AME church that left nine dead in South Carolina may have played a role in her plotting.
Here and across the country, AME churches have a long history of involvement in the ongoing fight by African Americans for racial equality, and often are part of the bedrock on which local black communities are formed. For more than 100 years, Bethel AME has been an integral part of the city’s historic Newtown community.
Sadly, churches and their congregations have long been targeted by those enamored with the concept of racial warfare. Many have been slain in places of worship because of the color of their skin.
So what is it about our current world that prompted a 21-year-old Dylann Roof to walk inside a church’s doors and open fire, killing everyone he could; prompted a 16-year-old Gainesville girl to consider doing the same thing with a collection of knives gathered for the purpose of inflicting death?
The answers are plentiful: an abstract world of social media that breeds hatred and intolerance; the promotion in all walks of life of confrontational behavior as an acceptable norm; a political system that has denigrated so that it is impossible to separate right from wrong, fact from fiction; a desensitizing of humanity so that the taking of life no longer has meaning; a general loss of civility.
The list goes one. Take your pick.
We can accept all those realities and prepare ourselves for the sort of dystopian future for mankind so often portrayed in works of literary and cinematic fiction, or we can refuse to give in to the base destruction of social order and fight against the evils threatening to destroy us from within.
We may not be able to fix the world, but we can make our little portion of it better.
Collectively we can take a stand for the sanctity of life, the equality of all people. Stand up for right over wrong. We can do it here, at home, with voices raised and arms linked together. White, black, Latino, Asian, biracial, multiracial, not just to stop acts of violence, but to change the cultures in which they are cultivated and grown.
The message of tolerance and inclusion is one that needs to be preached from the pulpits; prayed about at the Thanksgiving table; talked about in our homes and schools; and demonstrated to our youth through actions, not words. A silent protest against hate, scheduled for outside of Bethel AME this morning, is a good place to start.
“It hurts me that someone can have that much hate in their body,” Police Chief Jay Parrish said of the suspect arrested last week.
Babies do not come into the world with hatred. Someone teaches it to them. We have to replace those lessons with something better. In this case, police said the suspect’s racist attitudes were not reflective of her parents beliefs, which would suggest other “influencers” are involved.
It may be hard to define what the answer is to the problem, but there’s no doubt that having to lock the church doors to keep people out isn’t it.