As two dozen worshippers filed into Armstrong African Methodist Episcopal Church on Sunday, their hearts were heavy with grief over the racist massacre last week at a sibling A.M.E. church in Charleston.
So when a white man in his late 20s and acting strangely entered the little church at 401 W. North St., the churchgoers were uneasy. Pastor Portia Duncan called 911.
“As we talked to him, he said a couple of things that were a little disturbing,” said the Rev. Andre Waits, the church’s co-pastor. One unnerving comment was that he felt fine “‘until I went off the deep end.’”
“That’s when we called for the police officers,” Waits said.
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Two Arlington officers questioned the man, determined he was homeless and harmless, and sent him on his way.
“In light of all the things happening, people are on edge,” said Sgt. Gary Carter. “He probably wanted some food.”
A nearby shelter that opens at about 3 p.m. provides free meals, said church members. They’re accustomed to people dropping in near the end of services, in time for the church lunch as well.
On a normal day, Waits said, the man’s suspicious attitude — even the fact he asked whether Armstrong was an all-black church — might have been overlooked. But the deep end comment probably would have prompted the call even if the Charleston tragedy wasn’t fresh in everyone’s minds, Waits said.
The incident brought the murders of nine people at the Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston too close to home for many.
“I didn’t really want to come to church today, and that’s sad,” said Melissa Cheatham-Farr, an Armstrong Church member “since I was in the womb.”
She added, “I don’t think I’ve been this afraid in the 49 years I’ve been going here. You need to feel secure where you live, where you work and where you worship.”
White supremacist Dylann Roof, 21, is jailed on a weapons charge, his bail set at $1 million, in connection with the killings in Charleston.
Patrice Brown of Burleson skipped services at her own church near where she lives to attend the AME church, closer to where she’s from spiritually, she said. She found it online.
“I wanted to come home, so to speak,” said Brown, who was a member of an AME church in Omaha, Neb. She now is a fourth-grade bilingual teacher in the Venus school district. “I came here because it is small like the church I grew up in. This is my roots.”
Brown stood with a couple of church members outside, watching police finish their business, and then continued to keep an eye on the neighborhood of several mostly African-American churches, large and small. The area was bustling with motorists hurrying to make the late services and neon-vested men directing them into several sprawling parking lots.
“I take no threat lightly,” said Anastasia Smith, who said she used to run background checks for a federal law enforcement agency. “In this day and age, churches are easy targets. They’re trusting. The history of the church is we take in anybody.
“But God didn’t say you have to be an idiot,” she said.
Waits, in his sermon, said that to be ruled by fear plays into the devil’s hands.
“The devil wants you off your game,” he said. “But regardless what the devil has in his mind, the doors of the church are always open.”
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7186
Monday prayer vigil
The churches of Arlington invite the DFW faithful to join in a prayer vigil at 7 p.m. Monday at College Park Center, 600 S. Center St., at the University of Texas at Arlington. The gathering is in response to the attack on Emanuel A.M.E. Church and concerns the event has raised across the nation.
Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams is scheduled to participate along with a diverse group of faith leaders representing different cultures, theological commitments and denominations.
▪ Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Vigil is 7-8 p.m.
▪ Parking is available in the College Park District garages with entry off Center Street or Spaniolo Drive (Pecan Street). See a campus map at www.uta.edu/maps