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Recording of gunfire on Westminster church’s voicemail prompts cancellation of services

Recording of gunfire on Westminster church’s voicemail prompts cancellation of services
The Rev. Samuel Nsengiyumva addresses participants in front of Church of the Ascension at the beginning of the 2019 Good Friday Community Cross Walk, April 19. Nsengiyumva said he discovered while checking the church's voicemailbox a message containing the sound of gunfire on Saturday. The church canceled Sunday services and children's activities for Monday and Tuesday. Westminster police are investigating. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

A Westminster church canceled Sunday services and children’s activities on Monday and Tuesday after a pastor heard the sound of gunfire recorded on a church voicemail Saturday.

The Rev. Samuel Nsengiyumva arrived Saturday afternoon at the Church of the Ascension office in Westminster and saw the light blinking on the office phone. When he listened to the message, he said he heard what sounded like “automatic gunfire.”

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”It did not sound like a live recording,“ Nsengiyumva said. “It sounded suspicious enough to get my attention.”

Westminster Police were called to the church at about 4 p.m. Saturday, Deputy Chief Pete D’Antuano said Monday. While D’Antuano said there was no immediate danger, police will increase presence in the area during services.

”It gives you pause to think,” D‘Antuano said.

The callback number was blocked and there was no voice in the message, Nsengiyumva said. He did not know what time the call came in.

The church canceled Sunday services and children’s activities planned for Monday and Tuesday, Nsengiyumva said, though church staff remain on campus. On Monday, youngsters were supposed to learn about gardening and Tuesday they would have decorated cakes, Nsengiyumva said.

The reason for the message is unknown, but the church is currently addressing a rift in the congregation, according to D’Antuano.

”They had some people that were upset about allowing registered sex offenders to attend church services,” D’Antuano said.

Nsengiyumva confirmed members of the church have been discussing this subject, though he said it would not be wise to speculate that is the cause of the message.

”We have been talking about how best to ensure the safety of our people ... and yet remain welcoming to all who seek God’s grace ... regardless of their background,” Nsengiyumva said. “We think we are close to a solution.”

Aside from the message, “we haven’t seen any signs of any danger,” the reverend said.

“We have no evidence, at this time, that the suspicious voice recording left on the church’s messaging system has anything to do with our policy on registered sex offenders who may wish to worship at Church of the Ascension,” Nsengiyumva said in an email Tuesday.

Nsengiyumva wrote in the email that any registered offender who wants to worship at the church must sign a conditional participation agreement with “strict restrictions” to ensure the safety of all who attend church.

The message was left on the general church voicemail and did not appear to target any particular person, according to Nsengiyumva.

”The safety of our people is paramount,” he said.

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About 130 people come to worship on an average Sunday, Nsengiyumva said. The church celebrated its 175th birthday June 1, he said.

”No church wants to go through something like this,” he said. “But we are strong.”

Despite the threat, Nsengiyumva said the church will continue in its mission to serve the community, reflect the life of Christ, and provide opportunities for all people.

”We are committed to being the family of faith,” Nsengiyumva said. “This is truly a challenging time, but we have the capacity to go beyond this.”

Church members will continue to receive updates through email, Nsengiyumva said, or they can call the church office at 410-848-3251 or 410-876-0736.

Anyone with information about the suspicious message should call Westminster Police at 410-848-4646.

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