Kannapolis churches report disturbances

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka and Scott Jenkins

Salisbury Post

KANNAPOLIS — Were they, like the Blues Brothers, on a mission from God?

Kannapolis Police say at least seven churches had visits last Sunday from men — strangers to the congregations — who disrupted services or Sunday school before leaving as quickly as they appeared.

They left, according to witnesses, in a large car, possibly a Lincoln.

The disruptions at the churches sometimes involved the men standing up during the services and speaking in what some pastors identified as Hebrew.

Other times, the visitors spoke in broken English or plain English, Maj. Woody Chavis of the Kannapolis Police Department said.

“Each church reported that the individuals seemed to be there to deliver some type of message but were acting strangely and made no sense,” a police statement said.

The strangers dressed in casual clothing. Up to three individuals appeared at some churches. One or two men showed up at others.

“They haven’t broken the law, but we would like to know who they are,” Chavis said.

The Police Department issued a press release Thursday alerting churches to last Sunday’s events and seeking more information, if other churches have any.

The men did not make threats or pose a danger last Sunday, Chavis said.

“We certainly don’t want to cause any undue alarm,” Chavis added, “but we would just like to know who they are so they don’t upset the congregations.”

Three men walked into Mount Zion First Freewill Baptist Church on Pleasant Avenue as Pastor Walt Lyman delivered the sermon Sunday morning.

One stayed in the church vestibule while two walked to the front of the sanctuary and began speaking in what sounded like Hebrew, Lyman said.

Lyman couldn’t understand the men, so he motioned to former pastor J.E. Rahme, who was sitting in the front row. Rahme said he knows a little Hebrew and understood the men to say they wanted to speak right then. He told them, in English, that Lyman was the pastor and they’d have to ask him.

The men then got down on their knees, put their faces to the floor and appeared to pray, Lyman said. Then, they got up and left without saying another word.

Lyman described the two men who came into the sanctuary as young and well dressed. He said they appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent.

He said the men were in the church only a few minutes and didn’t seem intent on causing a disturbance but “kinda upset a bunch of my church members.”

“Just the way they came in the church kind of upset everybody,” he said. “We welcome all visitors irregardless of race, creed or anything, but there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things and that certainly wasn’t the right way.”

One man showed up at Franklin Heights Baptist Church on Wright Avenue around 9:45 a.m. Sunday, just as Sunday School was starting, Pastor Jim Grigg said.

The man approached some church members and kept repeating a Hebrew phrase. The church members escorted the man to Grigg’s office. Grigg asked him questions, but the man just continued to say “Jehovah shalom” — “God is Peace” — over and over.

“He said a lot more, but I didn’t have a clue what he meant by it,” Grigg said.

Grigg said the man did ask, in English, if he could visit the church. And as he was leaving, the man yelled “Peace” in English several times even as he continued repeating the Hebrew phrases.

Grigg said the man looked to be in his early 20s and was very well dressed. The pastor called the incident “very shocking” but said he didn’t think much more about it until he heard of similar instances at other churches.

“Really, it was no trouble caused at all,” he said.

As far as officers can determine, Maj. Chavis said, the incidents occurred only in Kannapolis.

“It’s rather unusual, and we really didn’t know about it until after the fact,” he said.

Church officials didn’t contact police until late Sunday afternoon — and only after members from different congregations compared stories.

Seven churches were visited “that we know about,” Chavis said. Only three or four actually contacted police, who later determined that other Kannapolis churches had experienced similar visits.

The “disruptions” at churches occurred between 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., according to police.

Chavis said the state has an an obscure statute that allows police to charge someone with disrupting a church service.

Meanwhile, police are poised to learn more about the men this coming Sunday, if they make an appearance.

“We’re definitely going to be seeing if we can locate them this Sunday, if they intend on making those visits,” Chavis said.

Authorities ask anyone with information about the men’s identities or affiliation to contact the Kannapolis Police Department at 704-920-4000.

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Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-426 or mwineka@salisburypost.com or Scott Jenkins at 704-797-4248 or sjenkins@salisburypost.com.

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