It was a Saturday morning and the Rev. Jaman Iseminger had just dropped by to help some volunteers as the cleaned up the cemetery next door to the Bethel Community Church in Southport, south of Indianapolis.
Then a homeless woman entered the church and confronted him. She pulled a gun and killed the 29-year-old pastor, leaving behind a wife and a 2-year-old daughter.
“There are all kinds of tragic details … but here’s what’s really haunting about that case,” said Jimmy Meeks, a Hurst, Texas, patrolman who is also a licensed Southern Baptist preacher. “When they looked on his desk they discovered that his sermon that Sunday was going to be about the rising number of pastors around the world who were dying for their faith. There’s no way he could have known that he was next in line.”
The numbers are starting to add up, so much so that the bloodshed in religious sanctuaries is beginning to get attention from religious and government leaders, if not from national news media.
The pivotal year was 1999. Since then, at least 441 people have died violent deaths in American churches, said Meeks, one of several experts who have kept track of police reports since a gunman killed seven people and wounded seven more during a youth service at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. At least 151 people have been killed in Baptist churches since 1999, more than any other religious group.
At this point, Americans are more likely to be killed at church than in a school, said Meeks. The total for 2012 alone was 75 dead.
One reason the trend has stayed out the news, he said, is that the FBI defines a “mass shooting” as one claiming three or more victims. The violence in religious sanctuaries — most of it linked to family disputes, mental illness or strife inside a small circle of people — rarely hits that threshold. While there have been mass shootings in sanctuaries, that is not the norm. But the threat must be taken seriously.
“You are rarely going to see someone walk into a church and try to shoot everybody down,” said Meeks. “What we see are people getting angry and then getting violent. The anger means the same thing, time after time: Someone didn’t get what he wanted. Things didn’t go the way somebody wanted them to go.”
This past June, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FEMA released a 34-page booklet of guidelines for religious groups planning ways to prevent and respond to various kinds of emergencies, including gun violence. It hints at one of the toughest issues facing religious leaders — trying to identify, ahead of time, people who might threaten individuals in their pews or even the congregation as a whole.
For starters, planning team members must “share their own knowledge of threats and hazards the house of worship and surrounding community has faced in the past or may face in the future.” The sobering reality is that religious sanctuaries often contain large groups of people, including children and the elderly, and the “better first responders … are able to discern these threats and react quickly, the more lives can be saved.”
The temptation, Meeks said, is to think that megachurches — perhaps those known for taking controversial public stands — face the greatest threats. The reality is that most big congregations have very detailed security plans in place, often led by members who are active in, or retired from, nearby police departments.
Truth is, it’s usually leaders of small congregations that have trouble facing the fact their members could be at risk.
“I hear it all the time,” said Meeks, who has led 80 local or regional workshops (churchsafetyseminar.com) on these topics. “People will say, ‘You mean we can’t trust God to protect his own people in his own house? Well, a church is a brick building with a cross on it, but criminals don’t care about that. There’s no rhyme or reason to what some people are going to do. …
“You have to have a plan. You have to face tough questions and realize that something evil really could happen inside your church. So does your church have two or three men who are ready to die in order to protect others from harm? Are your people ready to act?”