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Church Culture

‘Zoombombing’ Lesson: Attack on Black Church Highlights Online Security Concerns

Even as her home congregation worships virtually, Nikki Murphy still likes to dress up for the Sunday service.

On a typical Lord’s Day during the COVID-19 pandemic, her sister Jamie Gadson comes over. The two put on makeup before connecting the church’s Zoom feed to Murphy’s living-room TV.

“I’ve been trying to stay in the habit of getting ready for church,” the 46-year-old nurse said. “Everybody has started showing up for church in their pajamas and not turning on the camera.”

This past Sunday, her preacher — Nick Glenn of the Sharpe Road Church of Christ in Greensboro, N.C. — titled his sermon “Everything Is Going to be Alright.”

The lesson, taken from Psalm 37:22-25, was meant to serve as an encouragement for the 350-member congregation.

“Be positive during these difficult times” was the message that Glenn, a 42-year-old former college basketball player, said he wanted to share with the predominantly Black flock.

As Murphy listens to Glenn’s prerecorded sermon each week, she keeps the live discussion window open on her TV screen.

“We do a lot of our ‘Amen-ing’ in the chat boxes,” she said. “If Nick makes a good point, I’ll say, ‘Preach, preacher,’ or cheer him on a little bit. … Sometimes I might say, ‘Hallelujah,’ and put a lot of exclamation marks behind it.”

Wanting to be seeker friendly, the church has shared its Zoom connection information widely on social media during the more than six months members have met online.

That openness had never been a problem.

Until now.

In the middle of this week’s sermon, a rapid-fire barrage of messages popped up. When Murphy looked closer, what she saw shocked her.

The statements were littered with racial slurs and hate speech. One comment taunted, “GET OFF CHURCH AND GO PICK YOUR COTTON.” Another proclaimed, “WHITE LIVES MATTER.”

Online trolls target houses of worship

Murphy’s congregation had fallen victim to “Zoombombing” — an attack by online trolls whose targets during the coronavirus outbreak have included churches, mosques and synagogues.

Other Churches of Christ have experienced similar internet hijackings.

When the Tintern Church of Christ in Vineland, Ontario, conducted its first midweek Bible study via Zoom, strangers appeared in the gathering.

“They were quiet until things got started,” senior minister Noel Walker said. “Then they would burst out in profanity before logging out. We had two or three people do this before I closed the gathering and opened an alternative meeting.”

Walker said he later learned that certain social media groups post Zoom meeting invitations online with the hashtag #zoombomb.

After the bad experience, the Canadian church created a custom meeting ID and came up with a password known only to members. The password never appears in print, not even in the church’s e-bulletin.

Terry Laudett, a member of the Contact Mission Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla., said he was participating in a large-group Bible study led by a prominent civil rights leader when loud music and burning crosses filled the screen.

“I was disturbed that someone went out of their way to attack people because of their race, especially people in a Bible study,” said Laudett, a White Christian whose 17-year-old son, Chris, is Black. “I was disappointed to think that my son will likely face this kind of hostility due to his race throughout his life.”

A Zoom spokesman, Matt Nagel, told the Chronicle the company has been “deeply upset at these types of incidents … and strongly condemns such behavior.”

The written statement shared by Nagel noted that the company “recently updated a number of default settings and added features to help hosts more easily access in-meeting security controls, including controlling screen sharing, removing and reporting participants, and locking meetings, among other actions.”

The bottom line is that churches should not share video teleconferencing details publicly, said Mark Brewer, a former chief information officer for a Fortune 500 high-tech company.

“You can’t just expose the log-in to the universe and hope everything works for good because there are bad actors out there,” said Brewer, a deacon of the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. “The second thing is, you need to have somebody managing the meeting.”

That person generally needs to be somebody other than the minister, who may have 25 other things going, Brewer said. And that person needs the ability to remove anyone from the meeting — even a member — if a disruption occurs.

In its advertising, the Walled Lake Church of Christ in Michigan invites seekers to email the church office for an invitation to its Zoom sessions, minister and elder Roger Woods said.

That allows the church to screen potential guests.

“We also encourage members to pass along invites to those they know,” Woods said. “We have had visitors join this way. In fact, we now have three new regular participants in our Sunday Bible class who live in Texas and California.”

The North County Church of Christ in Escondido, Calif., makes private, in-house announcements via a closed group, senior minister and elder Kevin Withem said.

“Our service is broadcast in our public group and our YouTube channel, but comments are carefully monitored, and inappropriate ones could be scrubbed quickly,” Withem said.

‘Lord, just fix it!’

Back in North Carolina, Murphy saw porn playing on one intruder’s screen as she scanned the handful of Zoom trolls who infiltrated her church’s service.

“Oh, Lord, please don’t let anybody see this,” she said she thought to herself, especially worried about the children watching.

Gadson, Murphy’s sister, began praying out loud.

“Lord, just fix it!” she asked, blaming the attack on the devil. “Just fix it!”

Because of playback issues, the Sharpe Road church recently split its prerecorded Sunday morning broadcast into separate feeds for Facebook Live and Zoom viewers. As a result, the entire congregation did not witness the attack, but more than 100 members were watching on Zoom.

The minister did not immediately realize what was happening. But his wife, Nikki Glenn, alerted him.

“Once we saw what was going on, we stopped the playback and went in and removed the individuals making the comments,” Nick Glenn said. “Then we just picked up where the broadcast stopped.”

Glenn reported the attack to Zoom and the Guilford County sheriff’s office, but he said he has no idea if the individuals involved might be traceable.

Brewer said it would be extremely difficult to identify the trolls. “If you post a Zoom meeting ID on a public channel or social media or in your bulletin, you don’t know who it is,” he said. “It could be somebody in another country.”

Meanwhile, Glenn drew praise for his response to the intrusion.

On his personal Facebook page, the minister wrote: “We got the memo a long time ago. You hate us. You think you’re better. You don’t want us here. I want you to get our memo. We love you despite your hatred towards us. You’re not better…. You’re equal. The same God that made you and called you good, is the same God who created me and called me good. FYI, we aren’t going anywhere.”

Doug Edwards, an elder of the Metro Church of Christ in Sterling Heights, Mich., was among those impressed by Glenn’s words.

“I don’t think we will ever make progress on racial strife when we respond to racism with hateful words,” Edwards said. “We must show these people that with God, there is a better way. We must respond to racism with love. We must do all we can to bring these people into a saving relationship with God.”

After the Sharpe Road service ends each Sunday, members fellowship together online.

Even those in their pajamas turn on their video cameras, Murphy said.

She was disappointed by what happened this Lord’s Day, but she was not discouraged. In their discussion, her fellow Christians all agreed that the devil had shown up, but God had won. As her minister put it, “It still was a spirit-filled service.”

“I think it was so beautiful,” Murphy said, “how his sermon was so on point with what’s going on in the world. With demonic attacks on every side, we are going to be victorious.”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted at The Christian Chronicle. Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.

Bobby Ross Jr.

A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, he blogs about the intersection of faith and the media for GetReligion.