The Day that Guns Came to Church in Louisville

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Ed Reinke / AP

A man wears his firearm as he listens to pastor Ken Pagano during a service at the New Bethel Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where people were invited to bring their own firearms into the sanctuary.

At 4:55 p.m, five minutes before New Bethel Church's highly publicized "open-carry service" was set to begin Saturday evening, Lynne Smith walked into the sanctuary with her husband and two friends and took a seat in the front row. Asked what weapon she had with her, Smith had to stop and think about which gun she'd brought but finally said it was a Beretta .25 automatic. Her husband, Michael Houston, wore a Browning .380 in a holster. Their friends, Ted and Barbara Grant, were also carrying weapons. Barbara, wearing a NYPD baseball cap, had a Ruger .38 revolver, while Ted, who wore a ball cap with the National Rifle Association logo on the side and "Silver Bullet Brigade" on the front, had a Taurus .40 caliber automatic.

The congregating arsenal was all perfectly legal as well as perfectly acceptable to the leaders of New Bethel, an Assemblies of God church in Louisville, Kentucky, that invited people to bring their unloaded guns to this first-ever event. Neither of the two couples in the front row are New Bethel members. Smith told TIME she read about the service in the Louisville Courier-Journal and came "to see what was going on." All four are longtime NRA members, she said, and all are deeply worried that the federal government will mount an effort to take away the right to bear arms they believe is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That generalized fear was expressed in various ways by various people at the service, which became an international media sensation when it hit Louisville's mainstream press early this month. Pastor Ken Pagano, a former Marine and a volunteer chaplain with the Louisville Metro Police Department, suggested the idea more than a year ago when the church board was brainstorming ways to expand its outreach.

At 5:05 p.m., Pagano stepped to the microphone, welcomed the crowd of about 175 and summarized the ground rules. "All arms are to be holstered," he said. "It's a cold-range carry as a show of support for the Second Amendment and First Amendment." He repeated a number of the talking points that he's honed while being interviewed by journalists from Australia to Ireland: pacifism is optional for Christians; society faces more risks from texting and Twittering drivers on the highway than from guns; and "we're not doing anything illegal, immoral or unconstitutional, so why apologize?" He promised to keep the event (it was not a worship service) to about an hour, though it lasted 90 minutes.

The relaxed program was built largely around music and talking points interspersed with a series of videos downloaded from YouTube. The audience sang a verse each of "America, the Beautiful," "My Country 'tis of Thee," and "God Bless America," then watched a video bit from the late comedian Red Skelton in which he invokes one of his former teachers who broke down the Pledge of Allegiance word by word. Pagano then asked the crowd to stand and led them in reciting the Pledge.

Two videos featured the magicians Penn and Teller, who support gun rights. In one, they stuff a folded American flag inside a rolled-up copy of the Bill of Rights before seemingly setting it (and only it) on fire; the magicians then challenge the audience to embrace the ambiguity of the illusion and to understand that, regardless, the Bill of Rights remains. Later, on another video, they parse the language of the Second Amendment and quibble with those who quibble over punctuation around the word "people" and their right to bear arms.

Pagano spoke of how the church's insurance carrier refused to cover the event and his the scramble to find a one-day rider. Only one agent in the country was willing to underwrite the event, he said — for $2,600. That, he said, illustrates how insurance companies have too much control over regular people. Those remarks, and others from Pagano, drew spontaneous bursts of "that's right" and "amen." The church eventually found coverage for $700.

One video showed a Marine reacting to the question of how he would respond to orders to disarm Americans. Marines, he said, are authorized to disobey laws they believe are wrong. Another clip featured ABC-TV's John Stoessel, who said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cannot cite statistics that prove measures like waiting periods and the Brady Bill have reduced accidental shooting deaths. Another clip featured a woman who saw her parents die in the infamous 1991 mass killings in a Killeen, Texas cafeteria. She'd left her gun in the car, as the legislature had mandated, and was furious with herself for "following a bad law."

Finally, came a raffle (the prizes: free NRA membership, gun range time and a pistol), a Lee Greenwood video of "God Bless the USA," and an invitation to hang out for hot dogs, chips and bottled water, a blessing on this humid 91-degree day.

Afterward, Kevin Terrell, who was among a group of attendees dressed in camouflage, told TIME that his militia group, the Ohio Valley Freedom Fighters, is closely watching various gun legislation in Congress. He noted that former President George Bush's expansion of presidential power is a problem because he believes the current president has used it to his advantage. "I used to think I was a right-wing Republican until Bush," he said. "Now that absolute power has been passed to a left-winger."

The church didn't know what to expect from the first-time event, said member Charles Hinckley, a former pastor who carried a Smith & Wesson .380, but it went off smoothly. Video cameras were prohibited on church grounds, forcing news crews to do stand-ups beyond the entrance to the church's long parking lot, and still photos were restricted to one pool photographer.

Pagano, who said church members have a responsibility to stress safe gun usage, would like to make the open-carry service an annual event annual leading to the Fourth of July. And he said he had no problem with an alternative rally, "Bring Your Peaceful Heart ... Leave Your Gun at Home," that coincided with the gun service. Terry Taylor, who heads Interfaith Paths to Peace, which organized the counter-rally, said there was no need to protest at the New Bethel event. "That's not how we do things," he said. "We wanted to hold our own event and give something to people that we think is better."