MEMPHIS (BP) — A “heavily armed” man was subdued and arrested at the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church Easter Sunday, the congregation’s director of security services told Baptist Press.
Texas-based church security expert Jimmy Meeks told BP 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.
Bellevue pastor Steve Gaines said in a March 28 statement, “Saturday evening more than 75 people gathered to pray over every seat in Bellevue’s Worship Center — for hearts to be changed as thousands entered Bellevue’s campus on Easter.
“Following that time of prayer in the 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,” said Gaines, who will be nominated for Southern Baptist Convention president in June.
Just before Bellevue’s 11 a.m. worship service began March 27 with an estimated 3,500 attendees, greeter Kathy Jackson noticed a man entering the church with “a pistol sticking out of his pocket,” administrative pastor David Coombs told BP. 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.
“I figured this was a guy with a [concealed] carry permit who just … didn’t know that it was appropriate to hide [the weapon] if he’s going to carry it somewhere,” Willis said.
Donald appeared calm when Willis took his pistol — a .40-caliber Beretta according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal — and asked him to put the weapon in his car before entering the service, the officer said. Donald said he had the weapon because “Memphis is dangerous.”
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. The Commercial Appeal reported the rifle was a .300 Blackout assault weapon.
“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.
“When I saw the rifle, I thought, ‘This guy’s coming to do terrible stuff. I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do. I’m stopping him,'” Willis said. When Donald ran, he “was not trying to get away. He was moving as if he was headed to complete his mission.”
Willis added he doesn’t know whether Donald intended to do harm. Coombs said Donald’s mother, who is a Bellevue member, reported he was “hyper-afraid of being attacked.”
The Memphis police and the FBI are investigating the incident. Additional information will be released later, Willis said.
Under Tennessee state law, guns are banned on church property only if the property is being used for a school event or if the church posts signs at entryways stating weapons are banned, the Commercial Appeal reported, noting a church spokesman was unaware of any such policy at Bellevue.
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. My hat’s off to her because we’ve told people over and over: It’s not just a case of ‘Do you have armed security?’ 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.
Depending on state laws and other factors, church security teams may or may not choose to be armed, Meeks said. He urged all security teams to train regularly, “just like the praise and worship team or choir does.”
Church security follows a biblical precedent, said Meeks, whose next seminar is April 2 in the Nashville area.
“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.