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After massacres, houses of worship prepare for the worst

For religious leaders and lay people alike, it's a struggle to let go of the long-held conviction that sanctuaries are safe havens. In its place is the dispiriting acceptance that they are, instead, soft targets.

Miguel Zamora stands a cross for the victims of the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church shooting at a makeshift memorial, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Miguel Zamora stands a cross for the victims of the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church shooting at a makeshift memorial, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.Read more(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

As a constable, Council Nedd II carries a gun while serving warrants on lawbreakers in central Pennsylvania. As an Anglican bishop and rector of a church of 50 congregants in Centre County, he has always left his firearm at home on Sundays, trusting in the safety of a house of worship.

That was before names such as Sutherland Springs, Charleston, Fresno, and Quebec became shorthand for carnage in sacred spaces.

Now, he and his fellow clergy are being forced to confront the reality that a church's traditional open door may need to be bolted and manned by armed security guards. In Nedd's case, the minister himself will be packing in the pulpit.

"I carry a gun wherever I go for personal protection and as a law enforcement officer, but I had this visceral sort of feeling that you shouldn't carry a gun in church," said Nedd, pastor of St. Alban's Anglican Church in Pine Grove Mills, and a conservative TV and radio commentator.  "But in light of recent events, my obligation to protect my flock extends to the church facility."

Under-vestment holsters aren't likely to become de rigueur anytime soon, but the recent spate of violence has so shaken religious leaders that they are hiring security officers, developing and updating emergency preparedness plans, distributing security resource guides to members, and attending classes on how to respond if the unthinkable — or what used to be the unthinkable — happens.

  1. Last Sunday, about 150 pastors and lay leaders turned out at Downingtown United Methodist Church for an information session led by a pastor trained in civilian response for active-shooter incidents.

  2. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hired its first-ever director of security in June, a former special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who will be available to help synagogues prepare for emergencies.  In December, a newly formed security committee will convene.

  3. Former Police Officer Brandon Rhone, a national trainer in the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) defense program, taught a two-day class that included clergy and church security officers at the Montgomery County Public Safety Training Campus.

  4. Burlington Township police will hold a session on active-shooter incidents — how to prevent them, how to respond when they happen — this month at Faith Deliverance Worship Center in Burlington.

  5. The Philadelphia Police Department is preparing regional meetings where faith-based organizations can get guidance from Detective Joe Rovnan of Counterterrorism Operations.

Many church leaders are realizing that they don't have any emergency preparedness strategies in place — not for fires, severe weather, or even for missing children, said Ron Aguiar, a retired police officer and church safety director from Louisville, Ky., and author of Keeping Your Church Safe.

For years, synagogues and mosques "have had security officers and plans based on their history and culture and what's happening across the world," he said, but churches have not been similarly motivated until recently.

The shooting deaths of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas prompted the First Presbyterian Church at 21st and Walnut Streets to review its emergency preparedness procedures. So far, incidents there have been limited to medical emergencies and disruptive — but not threatening — behavior of people who wander in off the streets.

The Rev. Jesse Garner, who said he recently received an email solicitation to buy a bulletproof vest, stops short of considering armed security. That, he said, is a job for police, who are nearby in Center City and able to respond quickly should violence erupt. "I think it would be a terrible thing for churches to arm themselves," he said. "That's just not the business we are in."

It is indeed a struggle to let go of the long-held conviction that sanctuaries are safe havens, said Frank Riehl, the Jewish Federation's new security director. In its place is the dispiriting acceptance that they are soft targets.

Rovnan, of the Philadelphia police, warns that 69 percent of active shooter cases are over in five minutes, and "as fast as you think police can respond, you never know."

Aguiar, who runs the Oasis Safety consulting firm, advises collaborating with local law enforcement to hire off-duty officers because they are highly trained, licensed to carry weapons, and have the authority to make arrests.

Church Mutual Insurance Co., which specializes in religious institutions, recommends a first line of defense that includes locked doors, buzzer entrances, security cameras, maintaining a daily account of facility keys, and training ushers to be acute observers of everyone who enters the church.

"A handshake can tell a lot," said Cheryl Kryshak, vice president of risk control for the insurance firm.

Many congregations, said Nedd, the Anglican bishop, may not be able to afford elaborate protections. So they stop after marking off a few boxes on a security checklist, instead of considering broad plans that address such threats such as vandalism, assault, embezzlement and natural disasters, said Jim McGuffey, chair of the House of Worship committee for ASIS International, an organization of security professionals.

Sometimes, congregants take security into their own hands, unbeknownst to the pastor.

At last week's security meeting at Downingtown United Methodist Church, the Rev. Charles Cole, pastor of the church, learned that at least one member is regularly armed on Sundays.

"I have hunters and NRA members who have no problems with that," Cole said. "It's one of the difficult parts of ministry. You don't just serve people who think like you do."

Cole worries about the potential for bystanders getting shot in ensuing chaos, and police responding to an incident in which they cannot distinguish the good guy with a gun from the bad guy with a gun. The congregation, he said, will now have to consider rules and regulations regarding firearms on church grounds.

Because houses of worship are private property, the leadership can usually determine weapons policies.

"Some post signs that say 'no guns on church property,' or 'you don't need to be armed to pray,'" said Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, an anti-gun-violence group. "Some might feel safer if they know some of their members are carrying."

At Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, the security plan includes methods that are both "seen and unseen," said Rabbi David Straus. The synagogue employs private plainclothes security and partners with local police. It has even redesigned its facility, which includes a school, so that when someone is buzzed into the front entrance, access to the school wing remains locked.

To fund those operations, Main Line Reform recently added a security surcharge to its membership fees. Straus said members have been happy to pay it, given recent events.

In some congregations, security worries are part of the DNA.

At 230-years-old Mother Bethel A.M.E., antique guns used by members to protect the church's early buildings are displayed in the basement museum. Today, the church employs both armed security guards and off-duty police.

Using firearms to defend the church is "as old as [A.M.E. church founder] Richard Allen himself," said its senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler. "We remind people that ever since there has been a Mother Bethel, someone has been trying to close it down, tear it down, or burn it down… It's part of our due diligence to do anything we can to protect it."