MARIETTA — When a visitor approaches the campus of Eastside Baptist Church during the week, home of Eastside Christian School, several protocols shift into motion. Cameras cover every angle of the parking lot. A full-time security guard patrols the area. Training provided to every staff member puts him or her on alert for anything out of the ordinary.
That’s before reaching a door. Once inside, a driver’s license or other form of identification is required to pass through Raptor, one of the top security programs for schools in the country. Within seconds, Raptor scans the name through every sex offender database in all 50 states. Another program, Church Security 360 Degrees, is used to further validate volunteers with youth and children as well as prepare safety protocol for mission trips and situations such as a fire or an active shooter.
All Eastside employees wear special badges noting their clearance to be in that area. They’re further instructed to engage with anyone who may be there without a badge and ask if they can be of assistance. Volunteers go through training on how to spot potential abuse cases.
On Sundays, volunteers patrol the premises inside and out, checking every nook and stairwell. The church also has up to ten people on Sundays – a mix of volunteers and paid Cobb County undercover police – walking around to spot safety concerns. Plans are being made to add a second security officer for evenings during the week. “Safety is the zenith of what we do,” Darrell Whipple, executive pastor who is also in charge of the church’s day-to-day operations, explained recently to The Index.
In short, you’d have a hard time finding a more secure church in America this Sunday than Eastside Baptist.
Facing a tragedy, the road to rebuild
John Hull had barely finished unpacking his last box since becoming Eastside’s lead pastor when the news broke in early 2016. A native of Marietta, he had family at Eastside Christian School when reports came in 2001 of a karate instructor/Sunday School teacher abusing children. New security steps followed that case, but those policies could have benefitted from some updates and increased training over the years.
Now, Hull learned of a janitor who had inappropriately touched a girl prior to Hull’s joining the church. The janitor was fired and charged by local police. Soon, another case broke concerning a former paid student ministry worker. That associate, Alexander Edwards, had been hired by an individual at the church despite an obscenity charge in Lee County. When the head student pastor announced he was leaving the church in the fall of 2015, leaders decided it was Edwards’ time to go as well. Edwards’ acts against an 11-year-old boy took place in April, some six months after his time at Eastside came to an end. The official who hired Edwards had been dismissed from the church after Hull arrived.
A graduate of Marietta High School and UGA, Hull had embarked on a ministry career that took him to president and CEO of EQUIP Leadership, launched by John Maxwell in 1997 to train and resource leaders, before his return to his hometown. The grandfather of three was devastated by the revelations that came out not long after he began at Eastside. His background played a large part in his immediate response.
In late spring 2016, Hull and Eastside leadership held a meeting that included every parent of every child or student associated with the church and Eastside Christian School as well as those from the community – around 600 in all. Hull and others outlined what had happened and how the church would go forward in doing everything possible to prevent another occurrence.
“We appointed the position of a safety chairman that day which eventually became written into our church constitution as a safety trustee,” Hull explained. “We opened it up for questions and laid out future plans.
“In June, July, and August we held church conferences to keep people further informed,” he said. “We put a constitutional committee together to strengthen our child protection policies. Part of that was language stating no employee of Eastside could make a unilateral hire. It has to be approved by others.”
Since that time, Hull estimates Eastside has poured up to $400,000 into training, programs, protocols, and personnel to make children as safe as possible. Todd Graham, the church’s family pastor, brings his experience with the Cobb County Police Department in serving as the church’s “captain” of child safety and abuse prevention.
‘We have been grieving’
It’s difficult for the general public, Hull attested, to not look past those efforts after Eastside appeared on a list with other Southern Baptist churches in danger of being disfellowshipped due to a history associated with child abuse, as happened Monday night during SBC President J.D. Greear’s address.
“I am completely mystified,” he said Thursday. In particular, the pastor doesn’t understand why Greear nor anyone from the SBC Executive Committee failed to contact Eastside to ask what had been done in the past two-and-a-half years prior to the list being made public.
Hull agrees with Greear’s emphasis on protecting children. However, he believes the SBC president missed an opportunity to show the example of a church that has committed itself to that task in a way few others have, traveling a road none would want to take.
“The [Sexual Abuse Advisory Group] he put together is appropriate and right. No such thing existed three years ago. We’ve been called upon by our president to grieve and mourn and I think we should. We have been grieving here. But, no one seems to want to pick up the phone and find out that down here in Marietta, Georgia there’s a church that can lead the way.”
“The alarming part for Eastside is we had dealt with [the 2016 cases],” agreed Whipple. “We’re three years since and the church had regained traction again. People trust in us and are familiar with our past due to meetings and public forums we’ve hosted. But this … it felt like someone re-opened the wound for us.”
The Index attempted to contact Greear with questions pertaining to the list and his report. An associate responded and stated Greear was traveling and unable to reply.
Dealt with ‘in a very thorough way’
SBC Executive Committee Chairman Mike Stone agrees with Hull.
“I share his deep concern,” Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, told The Index. “President Greear was speaking as an individual, knowing that he does not possess the authority to place any congregation under investigation. And while the specific language of the president’s address did not claim that authority, the way in which it was communicated gave the unfortunate and unintended impression that this was an action of the Executive Committee of the SBC.”
“John dove in and dealt with it in a very thorough way,” Daryl Price, executive director at Noonday Baptist Association and a member of Eastside, said. “He wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, most people will not hear about what Eastside has done since then.”
Like Hull and Price, Stone felt communication ahead of time would have been appropriate.
“I do not agree with the notion that because these churches had been mentioned previously in the media that it was proper to name them in this context without prior notice. For example, in the case of Eastside, the story referenced was three years old. That’s an event to which the church had already responded and from which the church had significantly recovered.
“Now, they have a new headline handed to them by their own Baptist family.”
If the software programs in place serve as Eastside’s perimeter security, Officer Keith Rock is the hawk circling overhead.
Rock was contracted to Eastside through a security firm. Since 2003, the former software engineer has built up vast training and skills through various friendships and partnerships with government agencies. “We’re talking Quantico-type people,” he said.
“I’ve seen things and done things the typical security guard hasn’t. When Eastside met with my company, they brought the best of the best to the interview. It’s been like root beer and ice cream on a hot summer day ever since.”
Rock’s evaluation of the welfare of children attending Eastside Christian School begins before students get out of the car. “I watch the kid and then reflect on the parents to see if something’s not right. If they don’t make eye contact with me I know they had a bad ride to school. I know faces and they’re always on my radar.
“If there’s a car on my property (No, not technically “his” property, but that’s how serious Rock takes it.) I need to know why. If there’s a car hovering ten minutes around my playground, I go over and ask, ‘How can I help you?’”
Yes, Rock has offended some people when he could come across as intrusive. Hull and Whipple are fine with that.
“He’s also here when we do our fall festivals and for extra events,” Hull added.
Once when Raptor flagged the employee of a lighting company hired to do some work in Eastside’s building, Rock checked it even further by “calling some friends at Homeland [Security] and the Department of Defense.”
Granted, not many churches have those kinds of security connections. Eastside does.
The case to be an example
Eastside cares for close to 400 children from preschool through eighth grade during the week. Wednesday evenings bring 80-120 kids while Sundays see approximately 200-250 students under the age of 18.
Safety protocols extend to Eastside’s second campus, Eastside Mosaic, the umbrella under which the church’s Haitian, Spanish, Brazilian, and two English congregations as well as a student worship service.
Eastside Mosaic Pastor Adrian Coutzer voiced his support for Hull’s leadership.
“I have watched Dr. Hull rebuild and revamp the hiring practices, volunteer vetting, and how visitors are treated on campus. In fact, I have been so impressed and reassured that all three of my children go to Eastside Christian School, attend weekday activities under the supervision of volunteers, and do extracurricular activities on EBC premises,” he said.
“I have watched a church repent of bad management and poor accountability. Painstakingly, a public image had to be rebuilt and people convinced to renew trust in their leadership. After about three years … the community has embraced the church and its ministries.”
A ‘serious rebuild’
“Eastside has made great strides and spared no expense to make sure our kids are safe,” expressed Whipple, whose children grew up at the church. “Our community in Cobb County and Atlanta saw we have taken this rebuild seriously.
“The disheartening part is no one from our Convention reached out to see what we had done and if we could be an example for other churches.”
Hull reiterated Eastside’s desire to help other churches protect children as well.
“Some churches can’t afford the steps we’ve taken. We’d be willing to host a conference for others and pay for it to provide every resource we have.”
With all the steps taken, though, he emphasized a key component of safety that can’t be overlooked.
“We believe in the power of prayer and have teams asking for God’s covering and protection over our church, students, and ministries,” he said. “That’s the weapon of our warfare. The enemy is out there constantly working to kill and harm and divide. The power of prayer doesn’t need to be missed in this.”