At churches, safety concerns intrude
After mass shooting, faith leaders balance being gracious, cautious
The congregation of about 220 people at River Bend Baptist Church in Fulshear would have been nearing the end of Sunday service when the shots rang out 150 miles away at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
Senior Pastor John Crowe learned only later that evening what had occurred: A lone shooter. A car chase. Twenty-six parishioners left dead.
A scene of horror that had unfolded in a sacred space, not unlike the one where Crowe preaches.
Places of worship have known violence before. And conversations about security have been ongoing for years in many, including Crowe’s, where volunteers help patrol with walkie-talkies and a police officer is always on site. But the Sutherland Springs attack came as an unavoidable reminder that mass shootings remain part of today’s culture, a threat that does not disappear even in a religious
place meant to offer people refuge, not turn them into targets.
The shooting has forced faith leaders across the Houston area to analyze the uncomfortable question of whether they are doing enough to protect those who come to worship. They are trying to strike the right balance. They cannot turn their sanctuaries into fortresses or places of fear, but they also must protect those who seek to practice their religion there.
“A church should be safe,” Crowe said. “A church should be a place of peace. A church should be a place of coming together, and not having to fear the things that happen in our world that can be so scary at times.” And yet. African-American churches were the targets of arson, cross burnings and bombings throughout the civil rights era and deep into the 1990s, when more than 30 were set on fire.
Nine people were killed during Bible study in 2015 in Charleston. Seven died after a gunman opened fire in 1999 in a Fort Worth church.
Over the last year, a wave of more than 100 bomb threats against Jewish community centers unnerved that community. This week, in fact, marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when more than 250 synagogues were burned during pogroms targeting Jews across Nazi Germany. Reviewing protocols
After Sutherland Springs, there have been both calls for prayer and security plan reviews.
The tragedy had “deeply touched the core of who we are as faithful people,” Gov. Greg Abbott stated in a written proclamation. He called for a statewide day of prayer on Sunday and, at 11:30 a.m., for a moment of silence.
“The best security is people in the pews praying,” as Father Paul Felix, the pastor of Annunciation Catholic Church, put it. Still, police officers attend services at the church, where he had asked staff before the shooting to review their protocol.
Felix isn’t alone in revisiting plans. After the shooting in Sutherland Springs, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which includes 147 parishes, asked all pastors to work with local law enforcement to develop safety plans.
At the iconic Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which has a membership of about 16,000 and between 6,000 to 8,000 regular Sunday worshippers, church leaders met with the security team on Thursday night to review safety measures.
The church security force, in place for years, consists of 11 to 14 security police officers every Sunday, who enforce the law, and about eight additional volunteers who enforce house rules. After Sutherland Springs, Associate Pastor Alexander E.M. Johnson said, the church will always have a constable with a long gun on site during service.
“We don’t want our officers outmatched,” Johnson said. “We want weaponry that will take care of any significant threat.”
He added that mass shootings have tarnished what should be a refuge. “It is most disheartening and disgusting that a sacred space has been violated in this regard and manner.”
Barkley Thompson, dean of the Christ Church Cathedral, said they revisited their security protocol, too, and felt comfortable with what they had in place. They feel safe downtown, he said, and work hard to ensure a balance between maintaining prudent security measures while also being gracious and hospitable to all, including strangers and people who live on society’s margins.
They don’t allow duffel bags or backpacks in the worship space. They also don’t allow guns. Legal phrasing banning them is printed on the church leaflets, and the police officers on site don’t enter the worship space unless there is an emergency.
“We worship the prince of peace who beats swords into plowshares,” he said, referencing a biblical verse in the Book of Isaiah. “When we gather as the body of Christ, we gather in peace.”
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which has offered church security training for several years, received so many requests this week for consultations that they decided to plan five regional conferences to address the issue in the state. Authorities offer help
More churches become aware of their vulnerability after attacks like the one last Sunday, said Mark Yoakum, director of church ministries for the Convention. They begin to realize that Sutherland Springs, as he put it, is “Anytown USA.” An attack could happen in their city, too, making training all the more important.
“It is necessary in this day and time,” Yoakum said. “It saddens me that is the case, but that is reality . ... A lot of our training is to avoid that happening.”
Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls and his staff brainstormed ways to help, too, and decided to publicize an offer to help local churches put together security plans. The attack had caused the Sheriff to wonder if his own church had safety measures in place, and he thought it was an important issue to consider.
They heard in the days that followed from at least five congregations who wanted help reviewing their security, and planned to offer active shooter training, too.
“Unfortunately, in today’s environment, we have to try to help prepare churches and others for the worst,” Nehls said.
Many larger churches have officers on site, even if mainly to address traffic needs. Nehls expressed specific concern with smaller churches, “country churches,” as he put them, which dot still-rural portions of the county and operate on smaller budgets.
There are places like Simonton Community Church, a congregation of about 350 people, which meets in the small city of Simonton, drawing people from the surrounding area. A retired police officer attends in plainclothes, and staff have gone through active shooter trainings, with refresher courses periodically given. They know to distract the shooter and, if someone is armed, understand that person should shoot not to wound but to kill.
“We’re not going to live in fear,” Senior Pastor Steve Littlefield said, “(God) gives man free choice ... so we can choose to respond.” ‘There is no one solution’
And there are places like Greater Zachery, a church of around 125 people in Fulshear, which relies on regular police patrol to keep an eye on their services. Attentiveness to one’s congregation is important, Pastor Jackie Gilmore said, but he didn’t see a need to hire security, not yet. That would draw from a budget he prefers to direct to helping others.
“And then what am I serving?” he said.
He knows the congregation is not bulletproof, he said, noting, “We can’t become so ‘holier-than-thou’ that we overlook what’s going on in our society.” But he also saw no reason to keep a pistol in the pulpit.
The issue has resonated across cultural boundaries. President of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston MJ Khan said he hesitated to turn mosques into fortresses with metal detectors and barricades. But he said they need to continue to pay attention to what can be done to alleviate the problem.
“The whole concept of a place of worship is for people to come anytime and pray,” he said. “We have to be really paying attention to what as a society we can do to alleviate this.”
Partha Krishnaswamy, president of Hindus of Greater Houston, agreed that finding the right balance was important. People come to Hindu temples, or mandirs, to meet others. They bring children. They have happy dispositions. They want to relax. Were temples now supposed to frisk people? Check on them in the parking lots? Place guards at the doors?
He expected one answer would not apply to all. At the next gathering of local Hindu leaders, he imagined they would begin to discuss what to do. “It’s a question that needs to be answered,” he said. “There is no one solution for all.”
Family members on Friday mourn Karen and Robert Scott Marshall, two of the 26 victims of the massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
First responders join in prayer following a Veterans Day event near the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, one of many American communities observing the holiday. Story on page A27.