Two-and-a-half decades ago, when Patricia and I lived in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., we sometimes attended Sunday services at a black church a few blocks from our house at 31st and N Street: A 120-year old black church at 29th and O Street.
We had become tired of the mushy leftism of our Episcopalian Sunday mornings and decided to try the historic African American Mount Zion church just a few blocks away.
I remember when we first walked in the front door of the old red brick building and took a program from the elderly black lady at the front doors. She asked our names, said to me, “Hold these for a minute dear,” handed me the sheath of programs and gave us each a welcoming two-arm hug.
Our sons, Tucker and Buckley, were home from school and were with us. We were the only white faces among a hundred or more friendly, sincere, deeply welcoming, hand-shaking black people. The sermon was passionate and the gospel hymns, sung a capella with the rhythmic accompaniment of hand clapping, ecstatic shouts and the stomping of dozens of feet was spiritually uplifting, exciting and, well, Godly in the extreme. It was a wonderful place filled with the finest of Americans.
We have a country house in Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay, about 130 miles south of Washington. It sits on the edge of an unincorporated Lancaster County town called Weems. About half of the 1700 residents are African American, almost all of them descendants of slaves. Their Sharon Baptist Church is about a mile from our house. A couple of years ago in November, uninvited, I attended their annual celebration for Veteran’s Day.
It was nighttime and the all-black church was crowded and noisy, filled with the excitement of sincere patriotism. The parish began the evening with the Pledge of Allegiance (can you imagine this happening at any event in Washington, D.C.?) and then kicked off a rousing version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with the choir parading down from behind the minister’s lectern and marching through the church, up and down aisles, swaying and rocking to the beat. This wonderful song was long ago cut from mainstream Protestant hymnals, such as that of my Episcopal church in D.C., as too militaristic, too jingoist. Some of those mainstream Prots talk that way.
The military veterans at Sharon Baptist, about 20 men and one woman, each stood, introduced himself and offered a line or two about his military service, to heavy applause. I was the only white person and I was invited to introduce myself as well; I received hearty applause in return.
The evening’s “master of ceremonies” was an elderly retired Army master sergeant, who looked razor sharp in his dress uniform with decorations. He was introduced by his aunt, an even older deaconess at the Sharon church.
Three visiting gospel choirs, voices throbbing and melodious and fluidly rambunctious were backed with enthusiasm by two electric guitars, a piano and a talented drummer. They rocked the church walls for almost three hours with songs like ‘When I Reach That Heavenly Shore,” “I Sing Because I’m Happy” and “What a Friend We have in Jesus.” I could feel the presence of God among those folks. I loved the evening and I loved them.
I thought of our friends at Mount Zion and Sharon when I read the tragic story about the massacre in a historic black church, in my favorite American city, committed by a crazed young white man who had been welcomed to a bible study by the same kind of wonderful people who greeted us so warmly in Georgetown and in Weems. How could he have done this, particularly to these kinds of folks? If he really hated blacks and was frustrated by American race relations; if he wanted to be Mr. Big Man, twisted into a murderous rage, why didn’t he drive the eight hours to West Baltimore, Maryland in his stupid little car with Confederate flag license plates, find a street corner busy with crack-dealing Bloods and Crips and leap from his car to challenge them to a race war with his 45 automatic?
He didn’t do that because he was a coward, a puny weakling who figured the murder of nine sweet, friendly black churchgoers, most of them elderly women, who personally welcomed him to their Bible study, would be personally safer.
The day after the massacre in the Charleston church, by total coincidence, I had lunch with my Marine pal from Fox News (and co-host with me of the Danger Zone radio show) Col. Bill Cowan, at PassionFish restaurant in Reston, Va., a half hour from Washington. We were joined by a new friend, Randy Spivey, the CEO and founder of the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, a very successful international business headquartered in Spokane, Washington but with a sophisticated new global training center in Reston.
Randy was with a multi-talented comrade from CPPS, Brent Woodall, the well-known rock musician who now runs security programs for Randy. So here’s my point about this lunch with two savvy security guys, held in the immediate wake of the Charleston church massacre: Bill and I asked Randy and Brent if they ever considered offering training in protection for churches. Well, it turns out they already do — and have been doing it since 2007. They provide safety and security training for churches, worldwide ministries, entire denominations and religious schools. Amazing, I thought.
They even have a minister, the Reverend Jerry McConnell, who directs their Ministry Outreach Division — a man with more than 35 years experience as a full-time pastor. Rev. McConnell runs teams of training experts who work with close to half of the largest churches in America, offering hands-on, interactive, ministry-specific training to keep what happened at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church from ever happening again somewhere else.
Quoting the Rev. McConnell, Randy Spivey said, “We are passionate about helping religious organizations create safe, secure environments for their people.”
Richard W. Carlson is a retired United States ambassador and former director of the Voice of America. He is the co-author, with Col Bill Cowan, of the very funny satirical novel, “Snatching Hillary” about the kidnapping of the presidential candidate before the New Hampshire Primary in 2016 and now available on Amazon.com.