Local church under fire for gun policy
ROYAL OAK — Packing heat and praising Jesus are cornerstones of an unusual local church where hundreds worship every Sunday by singing, dancing and screaming out messages delivered, they say, by the Lord.
Click to learn more… But when Calvary Christian Church members raise their hands to heaven, Bibles aren’t the only thing under their Sunday blazers.
Pastor Mark Byers urges the congregation to get concealed weapons permits and carry firearms to church.
The pastor also urges his flock to hit the firing range so their shooting skills are up to snuff, and he admits that he permits senior staff at the church’s day care and elementary school to carry guns — which police say is illegal.
“I believe 100 percent in the Second Amendment,” Byers said in his spacious Troy home on Thursday. “I think it is a great privilege to be entrusted with the right to bear arms. I encourage anyone who will listen to get a CCW (concealed weapons permit).”
Royal Oak police investigated what some say is a dangerous situation led by an egotistical minister who follows his own rules.
Byers is accused of destroying a family, alienating staff and sending people fleeing to other congregations.
The pastor defends himself as an upright man of God and says he needs armed protection from local crime.
Byers also has a fiery message and pushes ultra-conservative values in a world where guns stop violence, traditional families are revered, and Jesus speaks to the faithful.
“If you cannot get behind the vision of the leader … you are in the wrong church,” the pastor’s son, David Byers, said from the pulpit last Sunday.
One family claimed that Mark Byers destroyed their daughter’s life and numerous members had departed before last Sunday when David Byers outlined three upcoming sermons that center on supporting the ministry.
As his family shored up church support, Mark Byers was obviously under distress from outside forces and some in his own congregation.
“We are at war,” David Byers said from the pulpit last Sunday, urging the congregation to become “battle companions in this spiritual war.”
Gun policy investigated
Royal Oak police looked into the gun policy at Calvary after complaints that Mark Byers carries a gun under his jacket while he preaches, as do church elders and many in the congregation.
Former members said they got a letter after they were established in the church that invited them to carry weapons during services to help with “security”. The letter warns not to cause “unnecessary alarm” by talking about the weapons.
The Stroich family of Shelby Township got the letter and said they thought it was odd — but as Second Amendment supporters they decided to go along with it, until they said things at Calvary got so oppressive that they left.
The church building holds a school and a day care, where police say it’s illegal to carry a gun even with a concealed weapons permit.
Guns are forbidden in most local churches, but the law says a weapon is legal in church with permission from the presiding official. At Calvary, the pastor is the official.
Byers points out numerous cases of violence in the recent past to defend the need for firearms at the church, and says staffers need guns to provide security at the day care and school.
That puts him on the wrong side of the law, officials say.
“There’s nothing in the law that would allow him to have people authorized people carry guns in the school or the child day care center; those are restricted areas,” said Lt. Berry Zeeman of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department.
Byers admits his weapon once fell down his pants leg during a sermon and he kicked it under the pulpit and kept preaching. The minister said the incident was minimal and only a couple of people in the congregation noticed.
“We’re very concerned about it because it’s our belief that any time you get large groups of people in a smaller space, especially in a space where they’re emotionally heightened, the chances of something bad happening increase … almost to the point that it’s almost inevitable over time,” said Royal Oak Police Chief Ted Quisenberry.
The chief added that the department’s hands are tied about guns inside the church.
“I certainly question the need to do something like this, but it seems like there’s nothing we can do,” the chief said. “We can’t just arbitrarily set up outside the church and start shaking people down to be sure they have the proper permits.”
Royal Oak police are still concerned, though, about why the pastor and his congregation would need weaponry during services. There’s no indication they plan to carry out violence.
“I can’t understand why they would want this,” Quisenberry said. “It’s not as if there’s a public safety issue there. We’ve had no reports of anybody being threatened. You have to question why he’s choosing to do this.”
Byers is on the offensive about the local police department. He points to an attempted car jacking at the nearby BP Gas Station a couple years ago. The armed suspect tried to get into two Calvary church doors when 75 children were there for school and day care, the pastor said.
“Fifty-five officers can’t protect 30,000 people,” he added.
The chief countered that even if people are trained in weaponry, accidents are too common in a roomful of guns.
“There’s nothing to indicate there’s criminal activity there, but there’s always the chance that a woman could carry the gun in her purse, then get up and it’s gone,” Quisenberry said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Church, not cult
The church’s worship tactics may appear strange to people from more traditional Judeo-Christian religious backgrounds, but Byers takes aim at anyone who calls Calvary a cult.
The pastor said cults separate themselves from society and his church has certainly not done that with its radio broadcast and missions outreach.
The reputation may come because Calvary parishioners spend an hour before every sermon swaying, chanting and shouting messages that they say come from the Lord.
A band of musicians provide the soundtrack for the congregations’ pleas, culminating in a crescendo of emotion after a full hour of joyful shouting.
A dark-haired woman in a baby blue business suit was the first congregant overcome last Sunday. With her eyes closed, body rigid and hands clenched toward Heaven, she yelled that Jesus was giving her a message.
“Step away from the darkness,” she bellowed over the din of roughly 200 fellow worshippers carrying on their own private conversations with God.
A middle-aged man broke through the noise with a chant thanking the Lord for curing his incurable disease.
“I stick myself with needles every day, but they stuck you with nails,” the man yelled, moaning and praising the Lord.
This ministry came to Royal Oak in 1983 when Byers replaced his father-in-law at the helm of Calvary Christian. Byers, 54, married the Calvary pastor’s daughter, Sharon DiMusto, in the 1970s. He had been raised in Detroit and graduated in 1970 from Elim Bible Institute, according to the church’s Web site.
Byers worked in construction for a time, was a pastor in New York from 1977-1983, then came to Royal Oak in 1983 to replace Alfonso DiMusto, who had led the church since 1960.
Byers and his wife have five kids, who are involved now at Calvary.
Byers’ profile grew in 2001 when he began a daily radio sermon to “teach beyond the limitations of the local church,” according to Web site.
The pastor’s supporters listen to his broadcasts, pack the pews, “amen” his edicts, and obviously believe that guns and God go hand in hand.
“Stay where God plants you,” David Byers encouraged the congregation last week.
Staff Writer Catherine Kavanaugh contributed to this report.
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