- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

FLINT, Mich. (AP) - They go to church every week, but you won’t find them in their Sunday best.

Instead, you’ll find them in a Genesee County sheriff’s deputy uniform.

It’s part of the Security in Ministry program, which recently celebrated its 27th anniversary. The program began in the 1980s when a Flint pastor asked the sheriff to train some church-going volunteers to protect members and their property during services. It’s a program that Robert Pickell has chosen to stand behind since he became sheriff 17 years ago.

“We’ve talked to people who say that going to church is now a positive experience because they don’t have the fear that they could become a victim by coming,” Pickell told The Flint Journal ( https://bit.ly/204AoRv ). “As a sheriff, I deputize them to perform certain tasks - we don’t have enough police in our community … so they’re there performing a function, like a private police department for the church.”

The program started with the Rev. J. C. Curry, pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, and Sheriff Joe Wilson. Curry asked Wilson if the sheriff’s office could provide some of his members with training to oversee and protect the property during church services.

The number of volunteers snowballed as news of the program spread. Today, there are around 250 deputized volunteers who work in about 39 churches - mostly in high-crime areas. Pickell said he’s not aware of any other counties that have a program like this.

“On Sunday mornings, they’re at the church, in the parking lots at the entrances and they help people park cars, they direct the traffic in and out of the church. They’re in the parking lots to protect the elderly people coming out of their cars, they’re in the churches making sure when women get up and they leave their purse there nobody’s snatching the purse,” Pickell said.

A background check is done on prospective volunteers before they undergo a type of police training and are uniformed and deputized, Pickell said. During training, they learn constitutional law, how to - and how not to - interact with people and how to handle certain situations.

They have no powers to arrest, but are taught to enforce the law, and are in constant contact with the sheriff’s office through radios.

They are not armed, but Pickell said even the presence of a uniform can protect church attendants from theft and perhaps incidences like the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting that happened back in June that left nine people dead.

“It’s hard to answer (if the program could prevent shootings) with a yes or no, but I know having multiple uniformed people around, it does act as a deterrent. But whether a mentally ill person is going to shoot somebody - it’s hard to answer that,” Pickell said.

It helps, he added, that volunteers know the members of the church and could easily spot an outsider.

“They know all of the people in the church and if somebody that’s not a regular attendant, they know who they are,” he said. “They would probably talk to them, ask them who they are, find out why they are there - welcome them, certainly, but also look at them and with the way Flint is, kind of watch them.”

Archie Towell Jr. of First Union Baptist Church said his church has been involved in the program for about 17 years. The program has helped out-of-towners feel comfortable in an unfamiliar area known for violence, he said. It also helps the elderly and women feel more comfortable attending services, especially at night, he said.

“They talk to me all the time about how nice it is to have that kind of protection - especially the elderly and late at night when you have a late service,” he said. “We are blessed to have those kind of people volunteer their time.”

Towell and Ralph Tedford, colonel of Security in Ministry, each said although the volunteers are not armed, the uniforms represent an organized and prepared security force and keep people looking to steal at bay.

“You’re not going to have people stealing a car in front of a bunch of people that look like a sheriff,” Towell said.

Tedford said a recovering drug addict spoke at a Security in Ministry meeting about the power of the uniform. According to Tedford, the man said he used to steal valuables and money from vehicles in parking lots, but refused to go to lots with Security in Ministry volunteers. The uniform sends a message that they were an organized, trained and prepared security force, Tedford said.

Now, it’s a comforting service the community has come to expect - people can feel safe and comfortable coming to and being in church.

“There were a lot of people that would not come back to church at night. Because they were afraid,” Tedford said. “(Security in Ministry) took the fear away.”

Pickell agreed, saying the volunteers are well-respected by congregants.

“They’ve seen them for years. People expect them to be there now. They look for them,” Pickell said.

He also said areas with Security in Ministry volunteers have far less crime than those that do not.

“In any other area, if you pull in and park your car in an open lot where they weren’t there, there’s a good possibility you’re going to wind up being a victim,” he said.

Although it has continued to grow over the years, Pickell said he’s still looking to expand the program into more churches in other areas.

“The African-American churches are very supportive of our program, and what I want to do is I want to expand this program into some of the white communities in the high-crime areas, and it doesn’t even have to be in a high crime area,” Pickell said. “I mean, what a nice feeling for an elderly person to pull up at night into the church parking lot and have a uniformed security person right there to escort them out of their car and when they’re in the church they’re watching their car.”

___

Information from: The Flint Journal, https://www.mlive.com/flint

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