I know clergy persons who carry licensed pistols into the pulpit and several houses of faith that have armed, licensed people carrying pistols during services. When Dylann Roof killed eleven people at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston ~ many people from many faith traditions attended a meeting called by the Suffolk County Police Department and Homeland Security and openly questioned whether they should have armed people in their houses of worship. Many people were aghast at the question, but no longer.
In 2019 alone, we have seen the Easter morning terrorist attack of a church in Sri Lanka that killed 300; attacks at synagogues in San Diego, Pittsburg and elsewhere; attacks at two mosques in New Zealand that were live-streamed on social media; the recent machete attack at a rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration; and the murder of two congregants of a church in Texas before the assailant was himself killed by Jack Wilson, a licensed, pistol-wielding church member who is now being declared a hero for stopping additional carnage. Wilson’s Facebook post stated, “The events at West Freeway Church of Christ put me in a position that I would hope no one would have to be in, but evil exists and I had to take out an active shooter in church.” The killing spree lasted only six seconds. The police arrived within two minutes. Three people were already dead.
In a clergy Facebook group, in response to my post, someone suggested, in seriousness, that congregants should turn to the active shooter and throw their hymnals at him and that will disorient him enough to allow people to escape. Does that make you feel safe in the sanctuary or that your kids are safe in the Sunday school? Although I provided a link to a free, national webinar I conducted titled, “An Ounce of Prevention” and even though many other resources are available elsewhere ~ many people choose to make up methodology on the spot to address a potential murderer with a concealed weapon. You don’t have to be an addict to act like one, full of denial, unrealistic expectations, pretending to be in control of things you are powerless over, and a willingness to place others in danger.
This begs many questions, including one posed today in a Religion News Service (RNS) article, “Where is the line between loving people and protecting the flock?” It also poses questions of how prepared houses of faith are for such incidences; what effective measures are in place with congregations that cannot afford or refuse security teams; can we have non-partisan, civil discussion of the pros and cons of armed persons in church. It also begs questions such as: how many open entrances does your building have? Who is authorized to issue evacuate, fight or shelter-in-place orders and upon what criteria? Where would you evacuate or shelter-in-place? Do you have a plan for children and those with physical or mental challenges? Who is authorized to issue an “all clear” bulletin? What about non-active-shooter situations such as a fire, weather event or possible community disaster a such as a gas main break that may require sheltering or evacuating? Should your building blueprints be on file with your local police department?
I and many others have been trained by the Suffolk County Police Department (Long Island, New York) Police-Clergy Council and Homeland Security for “Safety in the Sanctuary.” Handouts from a webinar I conducted, and from similar workshops I presented at the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ will be available at the “Ounce of Prevention” event on January 14th at 7pm at the Congregational Church of Patchogue (Long Island) where I am the pastor. I do not believe I am being overly dramatic when I say that, as houses of faith, it is time for us to get our heads out of the sand, before our bodies are in the dirt.
The photo here is of a “panic button” issued by the police department to our church. It sat for a year on the pulpit where I stand each Sunday and it has been used once during that time. It resulted in an arrest of someone trying to enter the sanctuary, and an evacuation of the Sunday School children to a shelter-in-place room in the basement.
I am certain that you readers, as well as those who will attend this event or access the free webinar “An Ounce of Prevention” offered through the Practical Resources for Churches (PRC) of Long Island, New York, have much insight to gain from each other. Printed material, questions and insights will be distributed at this event that others may care to share. Please join us, if possible, for this timely event; contact me at dwightleewolter.com, or post your opinions, questions, suggestions and concerns here.
Peace Whenever Possible,
Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter