Shootings Spark Conversation About Security In Houses Of Worship In New England

Nov 29, 2017

On a cold November evening, Bishop Bruce Shaw led a prayer.

"All this violence is going on, but we know you’re the answer, Lord, Jesus. That you can curb some of this," Shaw said in front of the approximately 50 people gathered at the Centro Cristiano Nacion De Jesus church in Springfield, Massachusetts.

"Amen!" some people sitting in the pews answered. "That's right!" others replied.

But the pastors, parishioners and law enforcement officials there were looking beyond prayer for answers to how churches can protect their members.

In recent weeks, we've seen gunmen target churches in Texas and California. These deadly incidents at houses of worship have sparked a conversation about church security among clergy in New England.

"Tonight, we talk about the role of security in church, and there is a biblical role for it. In Ezekiel 33 talks about us being watchmen," said Archbishop Timothy Paul, president of the Council of Churches of Western Massachusetts. "Never did I think that the church would have to engage in this kind of… these measures to protect us."

Paul wants the approximately 300 churches in the council to prepare for the possibility of a gunman entering their congregations. He mentioned security measures from cameras to armed guards.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Regan, left, talks to attendees at the church security summit.
Credit Sean Teehan / NEPR
Iesha Brown, left, and other attendees look over a handout at the church security summit.
Credit Sean Teehan / NEPR

A total of 32 people were gunned down by active shooters in houses of worship between 2000 and 2015, according to FBI data. In November, a total of 27 people were killed in a single day by shooters while attending church services.

Now, an increasing number of churches are looking into protective measures, according to Marcus Coleman, acting director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The department last year launched a website that compiles resources for protecting houses of worship from attacks.

"We encourage faith leaders to get connected to their local emergency manager, and local law enforcement official," Coleman said. "Get trained -- so we provide some trainings through our localities including the community emergency response team training. And then, the other thing we talk about is get organized."

Agencies including Homeland Security and the Department of Justice are helping out with that by hosting informational sessions around Massachusetts the next couple months.

Church groups are considering varying levels of security measures, and clergy have different opinions about what's adequate security and what's overkill. This divide is clear when talking about armed guards and parishioners carrying weapons.

Patrick Perkins, priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Holden, Massachusetts, said church members should trust the police when it comes to weapons. Arming parishioners could result in more tragedy in a dangerous situation, he said.

“I think, personally, that guns don’t really have a place in places of worship,” Perkins said.

But Archbishop Paul had a different take when he spoke at the church security summit.

Archbishop Timothy Paul speaks at the Nov. 27 summit on church security.
Credit Sean Teehan / NEPR

“I’m an advocate for nonviolence for guns, but I’m also an advocate for not being foolish,” Paul said. “I think we need to make sure that we protect ourselves and our people who come to worship with us in services.”

Whether a congregation should be armed is a matter for individual houses of worship to decide for themselves, said Iesha Brown, who said she works security at Church on the Rock Kingdom Worship Center in Cranston, Rhode Island.

What's most important, Brown said, is thinking ahead like they do at her church.

“We set up plans for… who watches the door, who greets, you know, things like that,” Brown said. “So that way we get a perspective of who’s coming in to our services.”

Iesha Brown, left, talks with Springfield Police Sgt. Brian Beliveau at the Nov. 27 summit on church security.
Credit Sean Teehan / NEPR

Members at some churches -- including Gardner Memorial AME Zion Church in Springfield -- are generally no stranger to violence. That's according to Pastor Sam Saylor. His son was murdered five years ago.

Still, he said recent church shootings have chipped away at his congregation's feeling of security.

“What is coming to our awareness now is that on the inside of the door, we’re as unsafe as those on the outside of the door, as well,” Saylor said.