At churches, safety con­cerns in­trude

After mass shoot­ing, faith lead­ers bal­ance be­ing gra­cious, cau­tious

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Emily Fox­hall and Mon­ica Rhor

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.”

Bob Owen / San Antonio Ex­press-News

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.

Eric Gay / As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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