Behind the big doors of the small church and only a stone's throw away from the babel of engines crossing the Broadway and Fremont intersection is the hub of Bishop Larry Cook's spiritual domain.
Nothing about Cook, founder and leader of Real Believers Faith Center in north Minneapolis, is understated. His shiny black SUV could likely transport a baseball team. The face of his watch rivals Big Ben. The 44-year-old father and husband, as well as the seraphic force behind the 450-member non-denominational church, is a big man with bigger faith.
On a weekday morning in late June, the North High School alum's hallmark affability is infused with a hint of amusement. The church founded by this Minneapolis native has made headlines of late, the attention because its services are staffed by ushers, who double as gun-carrying security personnel.
"When you have modern day understanding of the society we live in, this is protocol," Cook says. "People go to a ballgame. There's security. They don't think anything of it. But people think because you're in a church, God is supposed to stop the bullets.… In this context, I think that we're being wise. The word of God teaches us that we aren't ignorant of the devil's devices."
Having ushers licensed to conceal and carry handguns inside the sanctuary was Cook's brainchild. It was implemented about eight years ago after church members had been threatened.
Cook believed it was time to harden the target.
"It gives us the opportunity to defend ourselves," he explains.
Nowadays, no fewer than four armed ushers are on hand at both the twice-weekly services.
"Our church is no different than any other. We love God," says Cook. "[The ushers with guns] don't look any different than anybody else at our services, except —"
Other churches in and around Minneapolis also have armed staffers, according to Cook.
"It's amazing how common what we do really is. It's very common having armed personnel for churches that raise money, that have a lot of people. You just don't know it and they won't talk about it because it's controversial. I know why I'm getting this attention now. It's because I chose to speak out."
City Pages called the other churches. Messages went unreturned.
The bishop is well aware that speaking out publicly about his church's gun-toting security force opens him up to criticism.
He's unmoved, saying, "They're ignorant. They're ignorant of the churches that are relevant to the society that they live in and to the communities that they fish in have this kind of protocol in church."
Desmond Goines is one of Cook's parishioners. He calls the church a "life-changing word" led by a man "whose wisdom speaks to the needs of the people."
"He taught me how to be on the down low with my wife, how to better communicate everyday with her," Goines says. "He's shown me by paying attention, how just a little piece of communication — if it's only 10 minutes a day — can go a long way and take our relationship to the next level."
With all this talk of weaponry and the Evil One, Cook doesn't want people to forget about Real Believers Faith Center's central mission.
"When you come here," says Cook, "you'll have the most loving and hospitable welcome of any church you've ever been to."
See tips to: Cory Zurowski