MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP) — A “heavily armed” man was subdued and arrested at the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church, the church that former Alabama Baptist Pastor Steve Gaines now leads, on Easter Sunday.
Texas-based church security expert Jimmy Meeks said the incident serves as an example of “heads-up” response to a potential threat. The man — 31-year-old Marcus Donald — who was taken into custody remains under mental evaluation, according to media reports.
Gaines, former pastor of First Baptist Church, Gardendale, said in a March 28 statement, “Saturday evening more than 75 people gathered to pray over every seat in Bellevue’s Worship Center. … This group also prayed throughout the church campus for God’s hand of protection to be on each person who visited Bellevue. We believe those fervent prayers were answered in light of the events Sunday morning.”
Just before Bellevue’s 11 a.m. worship service began March 27 with an estimated 3,500 participants, greeter Kathy Jackson noticed a man entering the church with “a pistol sticking out of his pocket,” said administrative pastor David Coombs. She told a nearby ministerial staff member, who radioed security.
Andy Willis, Bellevue’s director of security services and a reserve officer with the Memphis Police Department, approached the man, identified himself as a police officer and escorted him into a hallway.
Donald told Willis he had a permit to carry the pistol and did not have any other weapons. Donald then agreed to let Willis put the gun in a backpack Donald was carrying. When Willis opened the backpack, he discovered an automatic rifle and “lots of ammo,” Willis said.
“I, of course, quickly changed mode,” Willis said. “I dropped [the backpack]. I put my hand on my pistol — I didn’t draw it. And I yelled at him, ‘Get down on your knees,’ which he did.”
After another security team member arrived to assist, Donald rolled off his knees and ran toward the auditorium. Willis said he tackled Donald, and security team members handcuffed him and escorted him to an exit to wait for police. Donald was arrested for “emergency commitment” and underwent psychiatric evaluation, according to the Commercial Appeal.
Willis said when Donald ran, he “was not trying to get away. He was moving as if he was headed to complete his mission.”
The Memphis police and the FBI are investigating the incident. Additional information will be released later, Willis said.
Meeks, a retired Hurst, Texas, police officer who trains churches across the U.S. in proper security procedures through what he calls Sheepdog Seminars, credited Jackson, the greeter who initially reported Donald.
“What a heads-up call,” Meeks said. “What a Joan of Arc, as we would call her at the seminar. … She probably wasn’t armed. But she saw something. … You’ve got to pay attention.”
Since 1999, there have been 625 violent deaths at houses of worship in America, Meeks said. To avoid additions to that statistic, churches of all sizes should form security teams trained to watch for suspicious behavior like individuals carrying backpacks or wearing large jackets in hot weather.
Church security follows a biblical precedent, Meeks said.
“Paul used armed security in Acts 23, if you’ll recall,” Meeks said. “His nephew told him, ‘Paul, there are 40 men who are going to kill you. They vowed to not eat until you’re dead.’ Paul said, ‘Well, go tell the police,’ and they put 475 armed guards on him. That’s how he got to Rome and how the Gospel got all the way to Nashville and Dallas” eventually.
At Bellevue, security helped play a role in spreading the gospel as well. Under the protection of the congregation’s security team, 148 people made first-time professions of faith Sunday, the largest number of which occurred during the 11 o’clock service, Coombs said.
For more information on the basics of church security, visit www.thealabamabaptist.org.