MONTGOMERY – Ron Henning recalls the day he first “put a man down” in the center aisle just before the pastor gave the altar call.
“I thought he was reaching for a weapon in his pocket,” Henning says. He rushed over, zapped the man with a church-issued stun gun and sent him to the floor for seven minutes, throwing the service into tumult. It turned out the man was heading to the altar to give his heart to Christ, but couldn’t wait for the pastor to finish the altar call. The church apologized and paid the man $500, but he has not returned.
“Mix-ups happen, but we’re safer as a congregation because of the stun guns,” says head usher Tim O’Daley. “There are crazies out there, terrorists who might try to take out the man on the platform.”
First Baptist Church has gone further than most to protect its congregation. As their city grew larger and more diverse – with a sizeable Muslim population immigrating from Florida – they adopted a far-reaching “prudent measures” plan. Now Cyclone fence rings the church property, two 24-hour security booths sit at both entrances. Concrete barriers protect the sanctuary from car bombers, and the pastor travels with three plainclothes bodyguards. Whenever the pulpit is occupied, even for small women’s ministry events, guards stand on either side of the platform.
Most dramatically, the church has outfitted the entire usher crew with high-powered stun guns, which are allowed under Alabama’s lenient weapons laws.
“It feels good,” says O’Daley, patting the stun-gun holster concealed under his usher jacket. Now, he and 40 other ushers don’t just lead people to open seats and pass the Communion and offering plates; they stand armed and ready to take down assailants.
Jake Fitzgerald, 18, was zapped when he got up to use the restroom during the sermon. The jolt was so powerful that he “forgot I was on planet Earth,” he says. Ushers say they thought he was making a move toward the pulpit.
“There’s an invisible line, and when people cross it, we pounce,” says O’Daley unapologetically.
Fitzgerald recovered in a back room and was released, with a free copy of the sermon on tape. He now sits in the back on Sunday mornings and never moves during the service.
The ushers practice their drills monthly, tackling dummies, leaping over pews and jogging around the parking lot. Some in the church say they fear being targeted by an over-eager usher, but others enjoy the safety of having “a small standing army” of protectors, as one elderly man puts it.
“I’m more afraid of Muslims, suicidal teenagers and disgruntled ex-church members,” says Donavan Smith, 87.
Though the ushers have made several mistakes, they have yet to confront a real malefactor. That doesn’t mean they aren’t ready.
“I can get the gun out in less than 1.5 seconds,” O’Daley says, snapping it out quickly. “Someday I’ll get to use it on a real bad guy.”