A Gunman Targeted Their Church, Here’s How They Remember that Day

“We’re not going to live in fear.”

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In late October a few hours after the weekly noontime Bible study, Travis Hines didn’t know that a gunman was outside. The 43-year-old Family Life Director at the First Baptist Church in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, was inside the church with a few of his colleagues, when a white man with a gun tried to enter by banging on and then yanking the door. Fortunately, the doors were locked. Several minutes later, Gregory Bush went to the nearby Kroger grocery store and fatally shot 67-year-old Vicki Lee Jones and 69-year-old Maurice Stallard. They were both black. 

“A tragedy was an accident,” Jones’ nephew Kevin Gunn told NBC. “This was intended.”

But Kentucky didn’t charge the alleged shooter with a hate crime, which typically involves crimes committed against a person or people solely because of an immutable fact about them such as race, religion, or sexual identity. While authorities said that it appeared that the murders were “racially motivated,” Kentucky’s hate crime law does not include murder. Instead, Kentucky charged Bush with two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, and first-degree wanton endangerment from the state. A little over two weeks later, a federal prosecutor charged him with hate crimes.

The act of violence in Jeffersontown is noteworthy not only because it was a hate crime, but also because of how its seriousness was eclipsed by other events that week. I talked to someone who was in the church at the time, and he described the experience and reflected on what it was like to have been the target of a hate crime—but spared.  

“That particular day, the timing was miraculous,” Hines tells Mother Jones. It was a couple of hours after the midday FBCJ Bible study had ended, which usually attracted about 70 people, and only a handful of employees were still around. According to security footage, Bush unsuccessfully tried to enter the church around 2:30 p.m. but FBCJ is a secured church. And for the midday Bible study, the side doors were unlocked for only a short period of time before they were automatically secured once everyone was inside and settled.

Hines didn’t find out about Bush’s attempt to get into the church before the Kroger shooting until law enforcement contacted the church. “I fell to my knees and thanked God for sparing us,” he said, “because it could’ve been us.”

It didn’t take much time before members of the congregation figured out why Bush chose their place of worship. “He came here because he knew that it’s a predominantly black church,” Hines says. “We’re the only one in this area.” Everyone there was acutely aware of their vulnerability, especially after the 2015 attack on the historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, when 21-year-old avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof entered during a Bible study and shot and killed nine members of the congregation. “We felt that that was his attempt to make it another Charleston,” FBCJ Pastor Kevin Nelson told the Associated Press

The Kroger shooting happened in a place where it’s not easy to be black. Not only did Kentucky have one of the highest rises in hate crimes between 2016 and 2017, a Louisville Urban League 2018 report found wide racial disparities exist statewide. In 2016, the unemployment rate for black residents of Louisville was 11 percent; the white unemployment rate was five percent. And while black people only make up 8 percent of the Kentucky population, they account for 29 percent of the prison population. Health researchers from the University of Louisville, whose findings were included in the report, have found that those living on the predominantly black west side of town have a lower life expectancy than its richer, whiter counterpart.

The week of October 22 was a particularly violent one even by American standards. News of the shooting at the Kroger in the Louisville area on Wednesday was quickly overshadowed by another shooting the following Saturday morning when Robert Bowers entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh, shouting anti-Semitic slurs and killing 11 people. Meanwhile, throughout that week, Cesar Sayoc, a Florida man and registered Republican had sent pipe bombs through the mail to various high-profile Democrats including Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and megadonors Tom Steyer and George Soros. One of the things they all had in common was that they were frequent targets of President Trump on Twitter.  

But when the shooting in Kentucky began to be eclipsed by the synagogue tragedy and the mail bombs, the community struggled. “It just re-traumatized a lot of people,” Chanelle Helm, the co-leader and organizer of Black Lives Matter Louisville, tells Mother Jones. “The focus went away and the synagogue shooting took precedence.” Helm speculates that since the number of casualties was higher in Pittsburgh, the media turned their attention away But still, she says, “It hurt really badly to get ignored.”

Hate crimes are on the rise in the United States. According to a report released by the FBI earlier this month, such crimes increased by 17 percent between 2016 and last year. Of the more than 7,100 hate crimes reported last year, three out of five were based on race and ethnicity. The rise in the number of hate crimes coincides with the presidency of Donald Trump whose campaign was fueled by racism and xenophobia and who has done little to tamp down extremist rhetoric as president. “President Trump’s candidacy had so many different themes that were consistent with their [extremist] views that he really did excite them in a way you haven’t seen with other mainstream political figures,” Peter Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University who researches extremism, told NBC last year.

President Trump said nothing about the Kroger shooting, unlike his response after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where first he took the opportunity to offer his sympathies to the victims, before pivoting to blaming the synagogue for a lack of security measures. “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him,” the president told reporters gathered at the White House, just days after the tragedy. 

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a staunch defender of the right to own and use a gun, blamed recent mass tragedies on video games and television shows about zombies. In a radio interview earlier this month, the governor said new laws wouldn’t curb the violence. “It starts with everything from the type of entertainment that we focus on,” he said. “What’s the most popular topic that seems to be in every cable television network? Television shows are all about, what? Zombies!” He also included abortions as a reason for mass violence. “When a culture is surrounded by, inundated by, rewards things that celebrate death, whether it is zombies in television shows, the number of abortions…there’s a thousand justifications for why we do this.” His comments came one week after a gunman killed 12 individuals at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. For Helm, Bevin’s reaction to violence were not surprising. “Our governor,” she says, “is just a little Trump.”

Jason Nemes and Jerry Miller, two Republican state lawmakers sponsored a bill to update Kentucky’s hate crime laws.”Inexplicably, this crime of murder was not included in the list of crimes that may be treated as hate crimes in the commonwealth of Kentucky,” Nemes said. And in the absence of stricter gun laws, churches and other spaces are fortifying their buildings and ratcheting up security. In the aftermath of the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last year, some nearby churches even considered arming their members.

Despite the fear of gun violence in even the most sacred of places, Hines says his church won’t close its doors to the outside. “We’re not going to live in fear because of this,” he says. “We’re not going to let this deter us from being an inviting church.”