Houston Chronicle Sunday
Guns in places of worship a new reality
Texas churches seek training, volunteer security after attacks
AUSTIN — Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls wears his uniform to church every Sunday and greets people at the front door. Members of his church’s security team sit in the pews in plainclothes, carrying firearms, tiny microphone radios in their ears.
Parishioners “feel better knowing, Godforbid some knucklehead comes in and wants to hurt the flock, we are there,” said Nehls, who attends services at Faith United Methodist Church in Richmond and is now running as a Republican candidate for Congress.
Guns in Texas churches have become a new reality after a rash of deadly shootings in the state and nationwide has heightened tensions for religious leaders and congregants. Aided by changes to state law that have made it easier for people to carry loaded firearms into churches and for houses of worship to assemble security teams, at least 100 church
leaders have organized groups of armed volunteers to patrol the pews. Hundreds of others have sent volunteers to informational security classes.
No one organization tracks how many churches have deputized parishioners or hired private security, but security professionals say there’s been a high demand for their services in recent years.
The decision to arm volunteers likely saved many lives at church in North Texas last weekend. A drifter with a history of drug abuse and mental illness opened fire inside West Freeway Church of Christ in the suburb of White Settlement, killing two parishioners before Jack Wilson, a seasoned marksman who leads the volunteer security team, fatally shot him within six seconds.
Advocates for better church security, including Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, point to what happened as proof that security teams can curb violence in places of worship. Abbott, who tweeted a picture Friday of himself with Wilson, lauded him as a hero and an example of a “good guy with a gun who stopped a bad guy with a gun.”
Supporters of what they call sensible gun legislation warn that arming everyone, especially those without proper training, could create new dangers. They note that two people were fatally shot at the suburban Fort Worth church before the gunman was stopped.
“Why did it even get to that point?” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “If we had a way of reducing easy access to firearms by people who clearly should not have them, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.”
‘Becoming Fort Knox’
Churches, long viewed as a haven for people seeking to get closer to God or be part of a religious community, have found themselves the scene of multiple deadly shootings in recent years:
• Nine people were fatally shot during Bible study at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 by a 21-year-old white supremacist. He was convicted in 2016 of murder and hate crimes and sentenced to death.
• Twenty-six people were killed at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in 2017 in the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. A local resident and former firearms instructor confronted and exchanged gunfire with the shooter, striking him twice. After a chase, the gunman was found dead inside his car; he had shot himself.
• Eleven people were killed and six others wounded by a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. He exchanged gunfire with officers who met him at the door as he tried to leave and later surrendered.
• A few days before the start of 2020, a man brandishing a large knife stabbed and wounded five people at the home of a Hasidic rabbi in a suburb of New York as they gathered to light candles for Hanukkah. The suspect was arrested in Harlem.
In Houston, pastors are struggling to determine the best way to deal with potential threats while not frightening parishioners or alienating newcomers. The shooter in White Settlement, located just west of Fort Worth, had been to the church previously and been given food, according to the pastor there. He reportedly grew angry when the church refused to give him money.
“The tension is real. (But) to try to alleviate the tension by becoming Fort Knox, means that we cease to be disciples of Jesus,” said Rev. Barkley S. Thompson, dean of the Episcopal congregation at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston, referring to the fortified vault building that’s home to the bulk of the nation’s gold reserves.
Christ Church, the oldest house of worship in Houston, is used to welcoming folks who may be mentally ill, homeless or just out of jail, he said.
“It may be that we’re more acclimated to strangers in our midst. That doesn’t mean that parishioners are immune to those concerns,” Thompson said. “We keep our eyes open for aberrant behavior and seek to identify that and make our off-duty officers aware. That’s part of being prudent. Welcoming the stranger does not mean ignoring aberrant behavior.”
Thompson, a gun owner himself, said Christ Church doesn’t allow parishioners to bring their weapons to services or take their bags inside the place of worship. The church hires off-duty law enforcement officers for security on Sundays.
Jeffrey Eernisse, pastor of a small congregation at Second Christian Church in north Houston, said parishioners are more practically concerned about a vagabond defacing their bathroom than a gunman wreaking havoc on the congregation.
“You’re not really very likely to be a victim of gun violence, even in such a gun-happy place,” he said.
In the wake of Sutherland Springs, Texas lawmakers passed a law allowing anyone with a concealed-carry license to bring a weapon into a house of worship unless there was a sign there specifically banning guns.
Eernisse wants to avoid stoking fear. He hasn’t banned guns from his church, as the law would allow him to do, but neither has he designated security personnel. None of his roughly 60 parishioners has approached him about doing so either.
“We are a very small congregation. We don’t have a lot of manpower to devote to such things,” he said. “I don’t want to be a congregation where we live by the gun.”
Still, many pastors across the state have begun training parishioners in everything from emergency exit plans to active shooter simulations.
Each place of worship should prepare for a possible shooting, just as it would a fire, said Harris County Constable Alan Rosen, who represents Precinct 1. After the Sutherland Springs massacre, Rosen began offering safety training for religious leaders. Members of some 300 churches, synagogues and mosques have taken advantage of the training, traveling from as far as Galveston and Montgomery counties.
“Frankly I’m tired of these shootings all over the place. It bothers me immensely,” said Rosen. “You can’t pray in a church now without looking over your shoulder to see who’s behind you.”
Many churches cannot afford to hire police officers or private security guards during their services, he said. Instead, churches that want to create their own security team should vet those volunteers and ensure the congregation knows what to do in the event of a shooting.
“You can’t willy-nilly just put together people standing around with guns and expect good things to happen,” he said.
In Rosen’s class, for example, pastors learn how to identify and segregate newcomers to keep a closer eye on them. The constable’s staff, upon request, has made church visits to assess vulnerabilities in their buildings and conduct role-play scenarios where a fake shooter fires blanks in the church.
Training from private companies is more intense. Gatekeepers Security in North Texas likens its program to police training, with parishioners who volunteer for a safety team undergoing firearms training, hand-to-hand combat, practice with a laser simulator, a background check and psychological evaluation.
In the days since the shooting, calls from religious leaders have poured in to the National Organization for Church Security and Safety Management, said Chuck Chadwick, the group’s founder and president of Gatekeepers Security. He calls the interest “emotional inertia” that builds after a shooting at a place of worship, but wanes as the tragedy fades from public consciousness.
Inspired to work church security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he said his organizations have trained about 500 volunteers in Texas to return home to safeguard their religious institutions, about 100 in total. When a volunteer is certified by the group, that person provides security and the church pays the organization a $11.20 hourly fee to absorb all liability for the actions of the trainee, Chadwick said.
About a quarter of his clients have gone further, establishing security rooms with an electronic vault storing firearms and tactical vests, he said.
“Nobody would have thought we’d be doing this 20 years ago,” Chadwick said.
In the 14 years he has trained volunteers, none has encountered a deadly-force incident, he said. Most times, they deal with criminal trespassing, domestic disputes and robberies.
Retired police officer and pastor James Meeks, who now runs Sheepdog Seminars at churches across the country, said the best skill is knowing how to talk to people in crisis. There are disturbances every Sunday at churches across the country that don’t call for an armed response, he said.
“You better know how to talk people down. If you cannot, at least know how to try,” he said. “You are going to use your mouth way more than your gun.”
Those who are joining church security teams need to be trained, he said.
“You have to be doing something, you can’t drop into a (firing) range and shoot targets that don’t move and think you’re ready” for an active-shooter situation, Meeks said.
That was the situation that confronted security volunteers at White Freeway
Church of Christ on Dec. 29, the Sunday service between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
A man wearing a fake beard, wig, hat and a long coat entered the cream-colored brick church and sat in a pew. Just before communion, he pulled out a shotgun and opened fire. He killed two men, Anton Wallace, a 64-year-old deacon and grandfather who was serving communion, and security volunteer Richard White, 67, who was also a father and grandfather. Within six seconds, security volunteer Jack Wilson shot and killed the shooter, Keith Kinnunen, 43.
Wilson was not an ordinary parishioner with a gun. He leads the church’s volunteer security team and has taught firearm safety, including to members of the security team. A former Hood County reserve deputy, he has also owned a firing range. Security videos show he wasn’t alone brandishing a firearm; several other people were standing in the pews, gun in hand.
In other cases, those on patrol never need to fire, but the possibility they may need to one day is still there.
A San Antonio pastor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of making his church a target, said he began carrying a concealed gun four years ago. He once pulled it on a stranger who came into the church with a package that he said was a bomb. The pastor provided video of the incident, in which he can be seen aiming a handgun while asking the man to leave, which he did.
“When you are in trouble, who do you call? Somebody with a gun, you call the police,” he said. “We arm ourselves for that very reason. By the time police get there, the damage is done.”