Kettering, Ohio – I was recently notified by a friend on Facebook that a local Catholic Church near our city had a suspicious incident during a church service that led to members calling the police to investigate.

According to the Dayton Daily News, 2 to 3 men were observed video taping the service in progress. They were talking and whispering to each other at inappropriate times, and Parishioners became alarmed and called police to check them out.

When the police arrived, they requested the men to come outside.  As they began the investigation, police determined the men were newly arrived to the United States from Saudi Arabia on a vacation and were interested in learning about Christianity.

In a post-incident statement, the pastor at Ascension Church wrote,

““We have verified that the young men in question are visiting relatives here in Kettering who live next door to one of our own parishioners. Those relatives have an excellent relationship with our parishioners and have inquired a lot about Christianity.  The young men also expressed an interest in Christianity and seemed eager to experience Christian worship firsthand while here in America. They visited Ascension because of the relationship their family has with our parishioners and because of our reputation as a welcoming community.”

Police contacted federal officials who verified the men had passed a background check before entering the country.

The pastor’s letter to the church community assured the following:

“While their actions did arouse suspicion, we believe their actions were simply a breach of proper etiquette. While current evidence suggests that they intended no ill will, the Kettering police and other appropriate agencies are continuing to thoroughly investigate the matter and are keeping us aware of their findings.”

Here is our concern:  If this were an isolated incident and not happening in other locations throughout the United States we would be suspicious, but we have been able to find other stories of similiar behavior.

The scenario is the same.  College age males from Arab countries entering six churches  in Alabama and documenting the church services with video or 2 men (unidentified) visiting the church and asking questions about the building, number of people present at worship, and other security related questions.

In my mind there are three likely scenarios to consider. 

1.  They really are interested in Christianity.

2.  They want to elicit a response and gauge the response. (gain intelligence, file a grievance)

3.  Planning a criminal attack.

Regardless of the intention, we are unfortunately living in a time where attacks against religious institutions happen worldwide.  While I was able to find these three instances in recent months, there may be more that are unreported.

These are sensitive issues. We are attempting to balance an open faith community and the idea of being welcoming to all, we must still be vigilant to any possible threat.  While the new saying is, “See something, say something.” many people are still hesitant to report things they see because of the racial component. 

Your church members should be encouraged to report anything they see that looks strange or out of place.  If their intuition has alerted them to something suspicious, then it is in fact suspicious.  People should be alert to behavior over appearance.  If they would report a man hanging around the children’s area or near the woman’s bathroom, they would hopefully report it regardless of race.

In the Kettering incident, I believe it was handled well.  Parishoners observed the behavior, found it strange, and called the police without direction.  The police investigated it and made a determination. The pastor followed up with open communication and didn’t try to hide the incident from the community.

This is a good model to follow for any suspicious behavior and continues to support the community in paying attention to what is going on inside or outside the church without fear.

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