Wedgwood Baptist flashback: A clock started ticking on a new era of attacks on religious believers

Day after day, I get waves of promotional emails from groups that I have covered during my 30 years as a religion-beat columnist.

Some of them I merely glance at. Others I fill away for future use.

One email this morning stood out, for obvious reasons. It was from the team of church-security advisors with an organization that calls itself the Sheepdog Seminars (as in workers who fight the wolves that prey on "sheep" in a church flock). One member of the team, Jimmy Meeks, is a Hurst, Texas, police officer who is also a Southern Baptist preacher. I've been corresponding with him for years (click here for a column from five years ago).

The email was from Sutherland Springs, Texas. Here's what it said:

This newsletter is short. Quite frankly, I don't know what to tell you this time. I do know this: we have now set a new "record" for the number of people killed on church and faith-based property this year: 92 so far.

The old "record" was 77 lives in 2015. This violence is not going to stop. You had better prepare your church. 

As our own Bobby Ross, Jr., noted at midweek, journalists have been all over the church-security angle of this latest tragedy -- with good cause. The fact that there are multiple companies and networks dedicated to this kind of work is evidence of the validity of this story.

The common theme is not that church pews need to be packed with people who have concealed weapons. The bottom line is that religious institutions need some kind of plan for security and, tragically, this now means preparing to stop or slow down a gunman, with worshipers briefed on evacuation plans, etc.

This is not a new story, of course. Thus, I appreciated that The Fort Worth Star-Tribune team returned to its own local angle on this latest massacre in a church. I am talking about the attack nearly two decades ago at that city's Wedgwood Baptist Church, which was the tragedy that -- for security experts -- started the clock ticking on a bloody new era. This passage is long, but I don't know what to cut:

Rev. Al Meredith’s voice was full of sadness Sunday after he was told the number of deaths in the mass shooting at a South Texas church.
“Oh, no,” Meredith said. “It so breaks my heart.”
Meredith knows about the grief a church suffers in a mass shooting. On Sept. 15, 1999, horror struck Fort Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist Church when Larry Gene Ashbrook invaded a youth rally carrying 200 rounds of ammunition and a pipe bomb. Before he turned his gun on himself, seven people were dead and seven others injured.
Meredith was the pastor at Wedgwood Baptist. He retired in 2015.
“Many people contact us, ask questions and then apologize for bringing it back up again,” Meredith said Sunday in a telephone interview. “But if you can help others through tragedies, we’re here.”
Meredith said his congregation was able to recover with the help of Fort Worth’s extended community. Police officers, community leaders and politicians stepped up support. The congregation received 13,000 letters and about 20,000 emails after the shooting, he told the Star-Telegram.
There’s a memorial at Wedgwood for the victims in the shooting.
“You never get over it,” Meredith said Sunday. “You get through it.”

Wedgwood leaders have been active, over the past decade or two, in efforts to help leaders of other religious institutions recover from attacks of this kind.

Obviously -- as a major New York Times report stresses -- there have been many attacks on religious organizations and institutions in recent decades. The headline: "In Places of Worship Scarred by Bullets, Long Memories and Shared Pain." Here is a crucial passage from that report:

In a nation awash in guns, houses of worship in recent years have been the setting for numerous fatal shootings, including an attack by a white supremacist in 2015 at a historically African-American church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine people dead.
As the news of Sunday’s massacre sunk in, there was a queasy feeling of solidarity in these sacred but violated spaces. Their leaders knew that the members of the First Baptist Church would soon be forced to partake in new rituals, and ask new questions about maintaining both security and a welcoming spirit.
They knew that the answers could not be perfect. And they knew that the Texans would feel the violation in their bones.
“Church may be one of our last places of refuge. Now it’s as if that is even being challenged,” said Joey Spann, the pastor of Burnette Chapel Church of Christ near Nashville, on Tuesday. Mr. Spann was shot in the hand and chest on Sept. 24. That Sunday, a 25-year-old former congregant waited in the parking lot for people to leave the morning service then opened fire, killing a mother of two and injuring seven others.
Such violence, Mr. Spann said, “won’t overcome the church, the Bible promises us that. But it seems like even that place of refuge is being taken from us.”

Journalists covering this story face a major problem and, honestly, I don't have an answer for it.

The problem: The story is simply too big. It's hard to come up with summary statistics that capture the size of the trend -- by which I mean attacks on religious people and sanctuaries -- because it is hard to define the trend itself.

For example, the Civil Rights era alone, followed by the horrible history of church burnings, deserves special attention on its own. Obviously, there have been a variety of different kinds of attacks on synagogues. Attacks based on racial bigotry and antisemitism are horrible and hellish, but they are -- tragically -- part of hatreds that the public thinks it understands. Journalists have a label for these crimes.

There are also attacks in churches that are linked to family violence. In part, debates about the motives driving Devin Patrick Kelley (as I wrote yesterday) center on the fact that a feud in his family appears to have been at the heart of his murderous attack.

But crucial questions remain: What role did his expressed hatred of Christians play in the split in his family? If his key target (his mother-in-law) was not present in the church service, why did he go ahead and shoot all the members of the congregation, appearing to focus special wrath on children?

Many people use the Wedgwood Baptist attack in 1999 as a dividing line for this reason alone -- the attack seemed so random and it didn't fit into any other historic patterns. That attack seemed to be something new. It also pointed to another trend that Meeks has been following in the past decade or two -- why to gunmen keep attacking churches with the word "Baptist" on the sign out front?

Read the whole Times story. This is essential reporting, but it left me feeling frustrated -- not with the Times journalists, but at the complexity of the task they faced. Clearly we are dealing with multiple motives, multiple trends, multiple threats. But the end is the same -- bloodshed in pews.

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