Visitors with backpacks cause unease for local church members

Published 12:03 am Friday, July 24, 2015

By Shavonne Walker

Two nights this week, St. Luke Baptist Church on Hawkinstown Road has had security in the form of off-duty Rowan County Sheriff’s deputies. The church normally doesn’t have security, but since a Tuesday night visit from three young men with back packs, they’ve felt the need for protection.

Three white men between the ages of 19 and 24 walked into the predominantly African American church around 9 p.m. when the service was nearing the end and exhibited such strange behavior it caused a disturbance among the congregation, said Pastor Arthur Heggins.

Heggins said it wasn’t strange to see white men in the church, but the behavior of these men was odd enough to make some members fearful of their possible intentions. The incident also made members reflect on the shooting in Charleston nearly a month ago when 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof walked into a historic black church, sat in on the service and later opened fire, killing nine people including the pastor.

Heggins said the church members were initially concerned because of the time the men came into the church.

“They came through the door at 9 p.m. That’s a little late for anybody to come to church,” Heggins said.

Attention turned to the shoulder bags the men were carrying. An usher approached them and asked if they’d like to be seated and they took a seat toward the back of the church, he said.

An usher again approached them and inquired as to why they chose to attend the service. One of the men said they saw the cars and wanted to come inside, but did not elaborate. There were about 75 to 80 people in attendance for a special revival service.

Tensions grew in the church after about 30 minutes as the men didn’t particularly seem interested in the service, but continued to look around the room at various church members, Heggins said.

A church deacon, James Greene, asked the men to take their back packs to their vehicle. He explained to them that the church didn’t mind them continuing in the service, but said it would make members more comfortable if the men returned the packs to their vehicle. The men did not.

All of the answers to the questions the usher and deacon asked the men were brief and short on details, Heggins said.

One of the men moved to the front of the church and into the pulpit after a minister asked if anyone wanted to come to the altar. The young man inquired if where he was standing was the altar. The minister answered that he was standing in the pulpit. The young man said nothing, but stood in the pulpit and looked out into the congregation, Heggins said.

The two other young men moved from the left side of the church to the right side. They were again asked by an usher to please put their bags in their car. Heggins said at that point the three men moved toward the door to leave.

Greene asked the men where they were from and the men showed the deacon badges that said LDS, which Heggins said they later learned stood for Latter Day Saints.

The men said they attended a Church of Latter Day Saints off Union Church Road. Heggins would also later learn there is no such church located near Union Church Road. There is however, a church on Julian Road. The men wore white shirts, neckties and dark pants, which Heggins said he knew as being the particular attire worn by many Mormon missionaries.

During the incident he believes at some point a church member went outside for a weapon. No weapons were used and law enforcement was not called. Heggins said he did grab his cell phone and dialed 911, but when the men left he decided not to go through with the call.

“We were giving them the benefit of the doubt,” he said of the men.

But, Heggins said “there was a great deal of fear and concern.”

Deacon Greene followed the men as they left in their vehicles and stayed outside until they had gone, Heggins said.

The vehicle they left in had a Texas license plate and was seen later this week by a church member. The church member recognized the men as the same who’d visited the church.

Heggins said the young men may not even know how much unease they stirred.

“My greatest concern was the safety of the church members,” he said.

After the men left, Greene went to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and spoke with a deputy. Heggins said the agency encouraged the church to call 911 about anything suspicious.

Heggins cautions other churches to pay attention to who comes into the church, what they may be wearing and any bags they have with them.

He said the church has plans in place to have someone in the parking lot to greet visitors before they enter the church during night services and have an usher welcome people just inside the lobby, or consider some sort of security.

“We were just unsuspecting. I felt like the people on the door were acting appropriately,” he said of his church.

“The church should be a place of welcome to all individuals, but at the same time you would expect people to revere the church and be obedient to what is asked of them,” Heggins said.

“We are there for the unsaved and unchurched. We want to be able to welcome all individuals,” he said.

Rowan County Sheriff’s Capt. John Sifford said that, no matter how minor a church thinks a situation is, they encourage them to call for law enforcement as a precaution.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.