On a typical Sunday, about 40 congregants gather at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia.
But this was far from a typical Sunday.
Throngs of supporters gathered at Bethel AME days after a teen was arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the historically black church.
Outside the church, supporters of different races held signs in solidarity.
“We stand with Bethel AME,” one colorful sign read.
“Keep hate out of Georgia,” another poster said.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Michelle Rizer-Pool, said she’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. She knew exactly what she wanted to tell her congregation during Sunday’s service.
“My message today is about encouragement,” she said. “We cannot be afraid.”
Alert student helped prevent ‘a bloodbath’
Last week, police arrested a 16-year-old Gainesville High School student for allegedly planning to attack the church.
“I have no doubt that we thwarted an attack that would’ve been ugly,” Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said. The teen girl faces a charge of criminal attempt to commit murder.
He said the white teen collected knives and wrote down how she planned to carry out an attack. Details of the alleged plot were “very sickening.”
“She’s a racist,” the police chief said.
The plan was discovered when a student overheard the teen talking about the plot and alerted a school administrator, who notified a school resource officer, Parrish said.
The pastor praised those at Gainesville High School who helped stop what could have been a deadly attack.
“I called and spoke to the principal to thank him for instilling in their students that if you see something, say something,” Rizer-Pool told CNN. “That precluded us having a bloodbath.”
Police believe teen visited the church
Brother Robert Clark, a pro tem churchwarden at Bethel AME, said he believes he may have encountered the teen earlier this month.
Clark said he was with his son at the church on the night of Wednesday, November 6, cleaning the floors in preparation for Bethel AME’s 118th anniversary celebration.
He said that it was dark outside, but he could tell that a white teenager was at the door. However, he could not tell whether the person was a boy or girl.
Clark said the teenager kept one hand in their pocket during the brief exchange. The teenager asked if there was a Bible study that evening, and Clark said he responded there was not. He then shut the door as the teen walked away from the church, he said.
Gainesville police have not said whether they believe the person Clark met at the door was the same teen who plotted to attack. However, Parrish said police believe the suspect visited the church earlier this month with knives.
Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said police believe she went on a Wednesday when she thought the church was having Bible study.
Clark believes the encounter could ended tragically.
There’s a lot “that could have happened” that night but “she turned and walked away,” Clark said.
Four states do not have hate crime laws
Georgia is one of four states, along with Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming, that do not have hate crimes laws.
Bishop Reginald Jackson of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said he hoped the teenager would be tried as an adult and criticized the lack of hate crimes laws in Georgia.
“It ought to bother us in the state of Georgia, this young girl, this young woman cannot be charged with a hate crime,” he told local media. “She cannot be charged with a hate crime because Georgia does not have a hate crimes law.”
But even without the laws, such states can report hate crimes to the FBI, the Justice Department said.
The Justice Department enforces federal hate crimes laws when a crime occurs based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. It began prosecuting federal hate crimes cases after the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
“At least 46 states and the District of Columbia have statutes with penalties for bias-motivated crimes,” the Justice Department said.
The 65-member Georgia Legislative Black Caucus said it now plans to push for a hate crime bill.
“Now more than ever we need to end the incivility of hatred and further advance the process of becoming ‘one nation, under God, indivisible,’” the caucus said Thursday.
Echoes of the Charleston massacre
The foiled plot stirred memories of the 2015 Charleston massacre in which white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine people at a historically black church.
Roof was charged with hate crimes in federal court, but not in state court because South Carolina does not have a hate crimes law.