Rev. Michael Oyler and his wife, Rachelle, say they believe they have a moral and biblical obligation to ensure their members' safety.

PLAIN TWP.  The shootings inside a church in Charleston, S.C., two years ago planted a seed of worry in Rabbi Michael Oyler's mind.

Nine members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were murdered on June 17, 2015, by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist they unwittingly invited to join their midweek Bible study.

Roof later told investigators he was trying to start a race war.

"What took place in South Carolina has always been in the back of my mind," said Oyler, founder of Star in the East, a local Messianic Christian congregation. "It's prompted me to be proactive."

Oyler and his wife, Rachelle, say they believe they have a moral and biblical obligation to ensure their members' safety.

"I think Christians have been vilified so badly; we're 'bigots,' we hide behind our faith," she said. "We've become targets."

Rachelle Oyler last fall organized a concealed-carry weapons class, where 12 attendees earned certification. She carries a .38 Ruger revolver during church services.

"With the climate out there now, my husband and I felt led to be more proactive," she said. "We should protect ourselves, but do it safely. One of the biggest problems is you can have all the training in the world, but if you don't know how to react, you can injure a lot of people."

A smiling Oyler admitted his wife is the better shooter. He doesn't carry a gun. He holds black belts in karate, kabuto and shotokan.

"There's a sort of implied pacifism by clergy and rabbis, but the Scriptures don't support that," he said. "The concept of the shepherd is that he's someone who leads his flock, feeds his flock and protects his flock."

Oyler cites Luke 22:36, when, at the end of his life, Jesus warned his disciples they would be in danger and appears to instruct them to purchase a sword for protection. It's a contrast to Luke 9, Oyler said, when Jesus sent them out unarmed.

"We are targets," Oyler said. "As the shepherd of the congregation, I believe I have a responsibility to have a tactical (plan) to protect my congregation ... what we do ministry-wise is a little unique. We don't ingratiate ourselves to everyone."

Messianic Christians believe Jesus is the Jewish messiah. Though they themselves are not Jewish, they observe Jewish holidays and dietary restrictions.

Malice against the church

The Rev. Tim Smith, a close friend of the Oylers, said he believes churches also are being targeted because of their pro-life stance.

"That's the part no one talks about in the media," he said. "There's as much or more malice and hatred against the church because of its stance against abortion. God said when you shed innocent blood, it's the third thing he hates."

Smith, who attended the Chapel in Akron and Akron Baptist Temple, is convinced the latter was destroyed by arson in 1981 because its pastor, the late Rev. Charles Billington Sr., was an outspoken pro-life activist. No cause of the fire was ever determined.

With a peak membership of 4,000 in the 1950s, Akron Baptist Temple was one of the America's first "megachurches."

Smith, who taught the CCW class at Star in the East, said he acquired his own gun license in 1991 in response to increased gang activity in the Kenmore neighborhood adjacent to Akron Baptist Temple.

Eugene Keller, a retired deputy sheriff who served in Nassau County, Fla., is Star in the East's de facto security director. A few weeks ago, Keller, who grew up in Springfield Township near Akron, addressed the congregation about the need for a safety plan. Shortly afterwards, 26 people were shot and killed in tiny Sutherland Springs, Texas, during a worship service, heightening Michael Oyler's concerns. 

"That church wasn't any bigger than ours," Oyler said.

Smith said that when it comes to attacks on houses of worship, the nation's mental health crisis and the misuse of psychotropic drugs can't be ignored. The Texas shooter, Devin P. Kelley, had a history of mental illness and felony domestic-violence convictions. Kelley, who should not have been able to acquire a gun, took his own life. 

Most large churches have security teams or they contract with local law enforcement. Keller said he served on a security team at a megachurch in Florida, where he said it's now common for people to carry concealed weapons to church.

"We had a security team that met weekly and trained constantly," he said. "We (watched) our pastor and his wife all during the service. I feel that even though this is a small church, we need to protect our pastor."

Michael Oyler estimates that at least six members at Star in the East legally carry concealed weapons.

"We're not talking about initiating violence," he said. "When it comes to physical protection, the Scriptures are replete about taking care of our families."

"It's all right to protect ourselves," Keller added.

No greater love

"If I don't care for my family, the New Testament says I'm worse than an infidel," said Smith, who carries an unloaded 12-gauge shotgun in his vehicle. "When it comes to abusing me, you can get away with a lot. But if you harm my wife, the Scriptures are 100 percent clear. I'm allowed -- actually, I'm mandated -- to protect others."

Because of their nature, church shootings tend to grab a lot of media attention. But how common are they?

Not very, according to a report just published by the Gospel Coalition. Using statistics from the Center For Homicide Research, author Joe Carter wrote that between 2006 and 2015, there were 24 church shootings in the U.S.; an average of 2.7 per year. Given that there are approximately 378,000 congregations, it means churches have a 0.0000071 percent chance of being the victim of a gun attack. 

"Love looks like a lot of different things sometimes," Smith said. "If loving you means I lose my life to protect you, that would be the most wonderful thing I've ever done."

"I'd definitely, in a heartbeat, throw myself in front of a bullet to protect a child or the pastor," Keller added.

'A way of seeing'

Bishop Abraham Allende, prelate of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the ELCA doesn't have a formal safety policy, but he has advised local congregations to consult with their local law enforcement agencies.

Allende said the ELCA Conference of Bishops wrote a pastoral letter in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook in 2013.

"It's unfortunate that we can no longer assume that we can attend a concert, a worship service or go for a walk in relative safety," he said. "But as a pastor and bishop, I turn to my faith for a sense of security. To borrow a quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner, our faith is 'First and foremost a way of seeing. It can't change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a difference.'

"I realize that, as people of God, we are not all of the same mind on that issue. I don't presume to speak for all. Nevertheless, I am still called to love and respect those with whom I disagree. I have asked the people in our synod to pray for strength in these times of seemingly rampant violence, that where this world groans in grief and pain, the Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to God’s light and life."

Rabbi Jon Adland of Temple Israel in Canton, said they consulted with the FBI when they put their security plan in place after moving into Beit Ha'Am in 2012. Temple Israel shares a campus with Shaaray Torah Synagogue and the Canton Jewish Community Federation & Community Center.

"They gave us some idea of what things we need to be thinking about," Adland said. "Our building is always locked. The only way you can get is if someone buzzes you in."

Beit Ha'Am recently secured a grant from the state to upgrade their system.

Adland noted that when he served a synagogue in Lexington, Ky., he occasionally asked a member who was police officer to bring his weapon to services. 

"The Jewish community has been prosecuted for years," he said. "We take security seriously, and seriously enough at those times of the year when we know there are going to be large crowds. "

Life and love

FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson, community relations spokeswoman for the FBI's Cleveland office, said the bureau doesn't get directly involved in church security issues.

Anderson said the agency recently did attend a community meeting in Cleveland on church safety issues because they were invited.

"Really, that's more of a first-responder kind of thing; not that we don't work with them," she said.

Anderson said the FBI did get involved when threatening phone calls were made to synagogues nationwide in 2015. The suspect, an Israeli man, had a history of mental illness.

CAIR, the Council of American Islamic Relations, publishes a "Mosque Safety Plan." Tips include reporting suspicious activity, building good relationships with law enforcement, schools, public officials, interfaith and minority groups; developing a safety committee, installing alarms and exterior lighting, and reporting incidents of violence or vandalism to local police. It can be read here: https://www.cair.com/publications/67-cair-muslim-community-safety-kit.html

Oyler said people are becoming desensitized to others' humanity. 

"That's how people can walk in and shoot a soft target," he said. "People aren't people."

"It's all about life and love, this building, and the people in it," Rachelle Oyler said. "This is our passion and our faith. If somebody wanted to destroy that, we're obligated to protect it."

 

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP