A historic African-American Baptist church in Alexandria, Virginia, received a bomb threat during a Saturday evening worship service, one week after 11 Jewish worshippers were gunned down at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The service, one of four services held each weekend at the 7,000-member Alfred Street Baptist Church in suburban Washington, D.C., was wrapping up when word came that police were outside and requesting all members to remain inside.
“We subsequently found out that some demented mind had called the police and reported that bombs were left at Alfred Street,” Pastor Howard-John Wesley said during a service on Sunday morning.
Wesley, pastor of the church for 10 years, said police first quarantined the church, blocking off nearby streets for a bomb search. Wesley said suspicious packages were found, but he had not been informed whether or not any contained explosives.
“While we were in the building and could not leave, we did what Baptist Christians do,” the pastor said. “We prayed and we sang and we had worship in spite of the threat.”
Aided by church security, police then directed people out of the building for a bomb sweep. No explosives were found inside either the original two-story brick building built in 1855 and included on the National Register of Historic Places or the sanctuary added in 1994.
“The very first thing I stand to tell you is that you are safe this morning,” Wesley, a director of The Lott Carey Global Christian Missional Community and trustee of the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, assured worshippers on Sunday. “There is no danger. The campus has been secured.”
The pastor commended the Alexandria Police Department’s handling of the incident. “It is good to live in a city where we have positive, productive relationships with the men and women of law enforcement, who helped us on yesterday,” he said.
Wesley called whole episode as “a little unsettling.”
“I’ll acknowledge I have slept better than I did last night,” he said. “To think about a threat to our family, a threat against me, it’s not something we take lightly, but God has not given us a spirit of fear.”
“It is disturbing, because we who are historically minded know the history of bombing and black churches. We know the era in which that came from, and it’s scary to think that we are reverting back to that era.”
Wesley said there was some talk about whether the church would cancel the Sunday service. “If we changed one iota of worship, then evil would have won,” he proclaimed.
“It is disturbing, because we who are historically minded know the history of bombing and black churches,” the pastor said. “We know the era in which that came from, and it’s scary to think that we are reverting back to that era.”
“To connect this with what is happening in Pittsburgh and indeed across the land is not something we take lightly,” he continued, “but it reminds us of why God has put us here.”
“There’s a darkness that has been sweeping across this land, and the reality is that we are light right here outside of the nation’s capital, and we aggravate the forces of darkness,” he said. “That’s what we are called to do, to let our light shine. We are making a difference.”
Wesley, a Chicago native with a D.Min. from Northern Baptist Seminary, has a reputation for taking prophetic stands on social issues. In 2014 he led community protest marches after a grand jury decided not to indict a New York City police officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Gardner.
In 2013 Time magazine credited Wesley with delivering one of the best sermons after George Zimmerman, the man who killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Fans of his preaching include former President Barack Obama, who attended Alfred Street with First Lady Michelle Obama on several Easter Sundays while they lived in the White House.
Alfred Street Baptist Church gave $1 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, making it the only faith-based institution founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19th and newest museum, opened in 2016.
Wesley said nearly 100 pastors across the country reached out to him to let him know their churches would be praying for Alfred Street on Sunday morning. He also heard from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, issued a strong statement of support.
“I condemn these cowardly and evil acts in the strongest possible terms,” Fairfax said. “I have worshipped at Alfred Street many times, and I look forward to doing so many more times in the future. Hate will lose, as it must lose.”
“Threats of violence against any religious institution must be taken seriously,” the lieutenant governor said. “In the wake of recent events in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, we cannot ignore any such threats and must oppose violent language and actions strenuously. Words and actions that incite violence and hatred must end – particularly from our leaders.”