If you are an evildoer wishing to bring harm to the members of River at Tampa Bay Church, don’t expect congregants to turn the other cheek.
They’ll blast you.
So says a sign at the church, at 3738 River International Drive in Tampa, that delivers a stark warning to anyone thinking of wreaking havoc.
"PLEASE KNOW THIS IS NOT A GUN FREE ZONE," it reads. "WE ARE HEAVILY ARMED — ANY ATTEMPT WILL BE DEALT WITH DEADLY FORCE — YES WE ARE A CHURCH AND WE WILL PROTECT OUR PEOPLE."
The message is signed "THE PASTORS."
The sign at the 21-year-old church was put up about a year ago, said Associate Pastor Allen Hawes.
But it made a recent splash on social media when Senior Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne posted it on his Instagram account in the wake of the deadly church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed 26 and wounded another 20.
"It is a deterrent," said Hawes, 37, who has been at the church for the past 15 years. "Look at what is going on. In the past two months, look at what happened in Texas. Look at what happened in Las Vegas. Because we are a church that is on television, we are very involved in the community. We want people to know that this is a safe zone."
Hawes, who has a concealed weapons permit and favors the Springfield Armory 1911 handgun, a favorite among gun enthusiasts, said the congregation has many armed members who are prepared to use deadly force if necessary. Average attendance each Sunday is about 1,200 to 1,300.
"If you walk through the door with the intention to harm, that sign serves as a deterrent to you," said Hawes. "We are not a soft target. People here will defend their families."
Leaders and members of the non-denominational church, which has hosted concealed weapons permit classes, are also paying close attention to the string of four unsolved homicides in the southeast Seminole Heights neighborhood, said Hawes.
"I think just collectively, we pay very close attention," he said. "Look at Seminole Heights. Someone is murdering people. This stuff is happening all the time. Do you wait for another shooting to take precautions?"
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.