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Two pastors worry for their congregants’ safety. Are more guns the answer or the problem?

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (AP) — Inside the columned church on the corner, the rich tones of the organ have wrapped congregants in their embrace. The time has come for the Rev. Jimmie Hardaway Jr. to preach the lessons embodied by the Prince of Peace.

If only the world outside Trinity Baptist’s stained-glass windows were a more peaceful one. Alas, it is not.

So when Hardaway rises to the pulpit this Sunday morning – weeks after a 24-year-old man was shot to death in the street two blocks from the chapel, and days after a mass shooting claimed six lives at a church-run school in Tennessee – he carries a .380 caliber semiautomatic pistol concealed in the pinstriped folds of his suit.

“I’m really not free if I have to sit here and worry about threats to a congregation,” says Hardaway, one of several religious leaders who sued New York officials last fall after lawmakers restricted guns in houses of worship. He notes the similarities between Trinity’s worshippers and those at a historic Black church in Charleston S.C., where a mass shooter killed nine people in 2015.

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“I’m really not free if I know that there’s someone who can do harm and I can’t do anything to protect them,” says Hardaway, whose city struggles with one of the state’s highest rates of violent crime.

The decision Hardaway has made is a distinctly American one. And it spotlights rising friction between the assertion of two very American principles: the right to worship and the right to own guns. With U.S. deaths by gunfire reaching record levels, it is far from an isolated instance of that tension.

At the same hour, about 90 miles away, the Rev. Stephen Cady and his flock at Asbury First United Methodist Church in Rochester, N.Y., are also seeking sanctuary.

And in a country where many faith leaders say their jobs now require them to draw up plans for responding to a mass shooter on their premises, Cady has reached the diametrically opposite conclusion.

His church, in a city where 63 people were killed in shootings last year, presides over a leafy neighborhood of carefully kept homes largely bypassed by the violence. But for a congregation unsettled by the increase in mass shootings and the deaths across town that garner far less attention, the way forward would only be darkened by adding even more guns, Cady says.

“Let us pause for a moment together … just outside the violence of the week ahead, that we might at least acknowledge the violence of the week we have just left behind,” preaches Cady, a father of three. He tells his worshippers of the dread he felt learning that one of those slain in the Tennessee mass shooting was the 9-year-old daughter of that church’s pastor.

“Here we stand … outside of the gate, longing for nothing more than to get to that new life on the other side,” he says. “Yet hell seems to have found us.”

Two men, brothers in Christ but unknown to one another, each determined to exercise their American right to pray without interference.

To one, the right to bear arms – and the proliferation of 400 million guns and thousands of shootings it has enabled – undermines the freedom to worship in peace. To the other, the right to carry a gun is an essential means of protecting fragile religious liberty.

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At the core of American identity is the belief that everyone is endowed with certain rights – to voice their opinions freely, to gather with whoever they choose, to pursue life, liberty and happiness as they see fit.

But as the Supreme Court has adopted an increasingly expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, the right to guns is casting a shadow over many other freedoms Americans hold dear.

That tension is becoming visceral in some houses of worship because, more and more, they feel like targets.

That was the case in 2012, when a gunman espousing white supremacist views killed six worshippers at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in the town of Oak Creek. And in 2017, when a shooter entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, slaying 25 people, including a pregnant woman. And a year later, when 11 people, including several who had survived the Holocaust, were killed by a gunman who invaded the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The attacks, and more routine violence, weigh on places of worship that strive to offer refuge from the profanity of everyday life, says David Yamane, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University whose work has focused on both gun culture and religion. It has left priests, rabbis and others to confront sometimes pained choices between maintaining openness and locking down, he says.

“Any kind of church shooting is a very low odds, but very high stakes event. But to be wrong would just be devastating,” Yamane says. “Almost every religious leader you talk to, no matter their background, that’s what they’re grappling with.”

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In a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors, conducted in 2019 by the Southern Baptist Convention’s research division, 62 percent said they had developed plans for responding to an active shooter. Nearly half said some in their congregations are now armed to provide security when they gather for prayer.

Ensuring safety in houses of worship most often centers on everyday concerns like medical emergencies and vetting those who care for children. But violent incidents at religious gathering places, tracked by the non-profit Faith Based Security Network, have increased more than twentyfold since 1999, with 60 percent of them involving guns.

Still, for leaders of some houses of worship, the threat can feel remote.

That is not the case at Hardaway’s church. In a neighborhood pocked by boarded-up homes, where votive candles and empty liquor bottles are arranged in street-corner memorials to young men killed during robberies and disputes, violence — much of it carried out with guns — is not abstract.

“This is not the answer!” the mother of 24-year-old Jaylan McWilson screamed during a sidewalk vigil Hardaway convened for her son, shot dead as he arrived home one evening in late January, within sight of Trinity Baptist. “God gave me a miracle son! And now he’s gone in the blink of an eye!”

Hardaway, 62, is the son of another mostly Black neighborhood in nearby Buffalo. Growing up there, he says, the pastor at his childhood church carried a gun for protection.

In 1989, Hardaway also began doing so, leading congregations in the Bronx, California and elsewhere, where neighborhood crime and all-hours calls to minister in sometimes tense family situations left him wary.

One time, when he wasn’t carrying a gun, “I had a guy beat his wife in my office and I couldn’t do anything. He was too big for me. All I could do was say: ‘Stop! Stop!’” he recalls.

In 2015, he was hired to replace the founding pastor at Trinity, about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from Niagara’s namesake falls. By then, he says, his worries about safety had faded, largely convincing him to leave his guns at home. Until one horrific night that June.

On that Wednesday evening, a young man walked into a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. and killed nine people. The victims included the senior pastor, Clementa Pinckney. The shooter was an avowed white supremacist.

“It was like, OK, what if this happens to us?” says Hardaway, whose congregants, like Pinckney’s, are nearly all Black, many of them senior citizens. “It could be us.”

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A different sort of tension is present in Cady’s church. But it, too, is keenly felt.

Well-funded and well-attended, Asbury is a neogothic landmark in a neighborhood not far from downtown, sharing its street with the mansion built for Kodak founder George Eastman. It is roughly 3 miles (5 kilometers) from poorer neighborhoods north and west where most of the city’s shootings take place.

The congregation, though, is committed to taking on problems beyond its doorstep. It has converted a home it owns next door into a community outreach center, providing clothing, showers, laundry and other help to people in need, while serving thousands of meals a year.

On Sundays, the 44-year-old Cady applies Christian teachings to problems on the minds of a modern congregation. That has included repeated calls for an end to what he views as Americans’ warped worship of guns. The alarming regularity of mass shootings in communal gathering places has only cemented his feeling that guns have no place in a church.

“As a people of faith our adherence is not to the Second Amendment. It’s to the Second Commandment, which is ’Love your neighbor as yourself,” he says. “And more guns do not help you love your neighbor.”

For years, Asbury’s efforts to preserve safety while doing ministry have been framed by memories of an incident in the late 1970s, when a man who claimed to be carrying a bomb strode into the sanctuary during worship. The threat was defused, in part, by agreeing to his demand to speak.

It worked then. But the drumbeat of mass shootings and the continued rise in U.S. gun deaths – up 23 percent from 2019 to 2021 to a single-year record of 48,800 lives lost, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – has pushed church leaders to repeatedly review their approach.

Soon after Cady was hired in 2012, a man set his own home ablaze in a nearby suburb, then opened fire on first responders, killing two and wounding two more. Last year, a little more than an hour’s drive away on the east side of Buffalo, a shooter bent on killing Black people targeted shoppers at a supermarket, leaving 10 dead.

For congregants of Asbury, the increasing frequency of shooting attacks on communal spaces has seeded a lingering sense that whether praying or sending their children to school, they need to be looking over their shoulders, Cady says.

After mass shootings at houses of worship, Asbury’s security committee has conferred with local police, updated the church’s emergency plans and worked to secure the premises. But they have decided against arming guards or others.

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The proximity of violence is unsettling enough. In Rochester, 351 people were injured in shootings last year. Of the 63 who died, the closest was just over a mile from Asbury. To carry guns into the church itself risks damaging the spirit of empathy and reflection the congregation exists to foster, Cady says.

“Can you serve God and guns? I don’t think you can,” he says. “I think you have to make a choice.”

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On a wall directly across the street from the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, an enormous mural depicts 10 doves rising to the heavens – one for each of the people killed in last year’s mass shooting.

“The tears are real,” an inscription reads.

Hardaway knows the place well. He grew up a few blocks away, works as a substitute teacher at a nearby school and shops at the store from time to time. The morning after the shooting, he drove to the scene, offering to pray with those grieving.

The hatred for Black people represented by the shooting felt like a threat, he knew, adding to worries that drug dealers or users in the neighborhood around his church might see his congregation as a target for robbery.

“The world has changed. There’s things that we would not expect to take place in a house of worship that are taking place now,” he says. “And I would do what I have to do to protect myself and my loved ones, those around me.”

A month after the mass shooting in Buffalo, the Supreme Court struck down a New York law that put limits on the right to carry guns outside the home. The state Legislature, controlled by Democrats, responded to the supermarket attack and the court’s decision by passing measures including one restricting guns in locations deemed sensitive, such as schools and churches.

Hardaway, a longtime Democrat, had voted for Kathy Hochul, the governor who signed the bill. But he took issue with a law he felt left him and his congregation vulnerable.

His search for others who agreed led him to an Orthodox Jewish organization in the southern part of the state that believes in the need for guns in synagogues, and then to a pair of gun rights groups.

Last fall he and another pastor joined with the groups to sue officials charged with administering the law. Two other lawsuits, one by 26 pastors together with the conservative New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and another organized by the New York State Jewish Gun Club and filed by men from a pair of synagogues, also sought to overturn the restrictions.

With an appeals court weighing the issue, New York legislators voted in May to amend the law, allowing congregational leaders and those in charge of security to carry guns. But the pastors and gun rights groups are continuing their lawsuit, noting that the law still does not allow ordinary worshippers to be armed.

Concerns for congregational safety were amplified in late August when three young, white men pastors did not recognize visited several Black churches in Buffalo during Sunday worship.

“Please make certain that your security team is aware and vigilant,” one pastor wrote in a text message sent to Hardaway and others that included a photo of the men.

Church leaders notified the Buffalo Police Department, whose investigators “have found no evidence of possible wrongdoing” involving the three men, city spokesman Mike DeGeorge said.

Hardaway’s stand on guns is supported by some congregants as an unfortunate necessity.

“The world we are in now, you always have to be on guard,” says Tameka Felts, a church trustee who also is licensed to carry. She does not bring her gun into church but is reassured knowing the pastor is armed.

“You always have to wonder, ‘Who is that person coming into the building?’” she says. “Coming in to church you should not have to feel like that, but you do.”

That can be hard to reconcile with the sense of peace that fills Trinity on this Sunday. The light of a crystalline sky streams through the stained glass. Worshippers, some holding children on their laps, lift their voices in song.

Sundays should be reserved for giving praise, says the pastor’s wife, Karen Anderson Hardaway, whose voice intertwines with her husband’s in the call and response of worship. The decision to carry a concealed weapon is intended to keep it that way.

Still, Anderson Hardaway says she understands how others seeking to preserve sanctuary fervently disagree. In a country where the average day sees more than 130 people killed with a gun, will the right to worship in peace be insulated from violence with one or without one?

“There is no right answer,” she says.

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