Op-Ed: Someone walks into a church with a gun. Do you have to fear for your life?


I had never imagined my own murder until one morning in January at the little church my husband and I attend in north Alabama.

I’m sitting in the back pew on the Sunday after Epiphany. A man with a military hairstyle opens the front door. The service is almost over. He smiles at me over his face mask as he quietly closes the door. I smile back with my eyes. He whispers, “May I sit here?” nodding to the empty seat next to me. I nod back.

Then I see the gun on his hip and my eyes widen. My heart is racing, my knees are tight, my body is getting cold. He’s dressed in olive green and I can’t tell if he’s military or paramilitary, Proud Boy or undercover cop. Does he want to murder us all?

in Alabama, a law allowing churches to set up dedicated police forces was signed into law in 2019. The legislation was inspired by a 4,000-person megachurch in Birmingham that private security measures were inadequate in times of mass shootings.

Twenty years ago my husband Hugo and I built a getaway cabin on Lookout Mountain at the end of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a peaceful place to relax with family. A resilient, rebellious spirit lives here, along with a thriving community of artists.

Beside me, the man’s automatic pistol, two rounds heavy on his other hip, is inches away. Do I shake off my good southern manners and head to the crow’s nest where my husband is zooming in on the service to alert him of the danger? In the cold church, a thin layer of sweat collects under my arms. Fear hovers beneath the surface of my consciousness, a fear fed by the frequent news reports of mass killings in holy places like schools, churches and synagogues.

As the man with the gun sings along with the congregation, I can only imagine our massacred bodies and imagine myself attacking him no matter what he does. I tell myself I’ll fight back, but my body betrays me while I remain frozen and unable to act.

Alabama is an open carry state and has no laws prohibiting firearms in places of worship. During a church service in 2015 a pastor in East Selma, Alabama, tried to grab a gun from a man after he shot his girlfriend and her son at church. After the pastor was shot, parishioners snatched the gunman’s gun.

Prior to 1963, no mass murders – defined as killing four or more people – were carried out on religious property in the United States. after Carl Chinna church security expert and author of Evil Invades the Sanctuary.

A gunman stormed a church service at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others. Remains the deadliest shootout in a house of worship in the USA in modern times.

The man with the gun takes communion and I still do nothing but watch as Hugo follows him and kneels beside him at the altar. I take refuge in believing that Hugo will do something if he feels threatened. Leaning over to the man with the gun, Father Bill says, “I hope you’re a sheriff,” while offering him the flimsy, tasteless cone and reciting “bread of heaven.”

At the end of the service, Father Bill stands a few feet from the man with the gun. “May the peace of the Lord, which surpasses all understanding, go out with you,” he says. His eyes dart over the gun. As we walk out, I realize the man is a sheriff when a parishioner greets him as such and shakes his hand to thank him for his service.

Later I ask Father Bill what he thought when he first saw this armed man. “I started rushing through the service, wondering if I should stop and tell everyone to disperse,” he says. Then he imagined his own death. “My friend just died from COVID and I realized it might not be COVID killing me.” It could be the unidentified man with a Glock instead. He is so upset that he considers hiring private security for future service.

If 25 years ago a man with a gun on his hip had gone to church or anywhere else, my eyes would have widened, but I would have had no hesitation in assuming that he worked in law enforcement. Not today. When so much of America is armed, how am I supposed to tell the difference between a terrorist wannabe and an undercover cop?

And as long as that is the case I will continue to live in a state of heightened fear, never truly at peace, especially in a church in an open carry state.

Lanier Scott Isom is a writer and journalist based in Birmingham, Alabama. She co-wrote Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight at Goodyear and Beyond. Op-Ed: Someone walks into a church with a gun. Do you have to fear for your life?

Caroline Bleakley

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