Houses of worship are not immune to acts of violence, as the world witnessed in Sutherland Springs on Sunday, and some observers suggest they are among the most vulnerable of targets, with their acceptance of strangers and eternal open-door policy.
That in mind, and with the mass murder of 26 people attending morning services at the small church near San Antonio on Sunday, local congregations are taking a fresh look at their security plans and how to prevent death and destruction from invading what should serve as a safe haven.
Some local churches have sophisticated systems and layers of manpower to monitor activities during worship times, while others recruit volunteers or assign elders or ushers to walk the grounds and size up visitors. Two area church leaders said they feel comfortable knowing several congregants are packing heat, and the Waco Regional Baptist Association created a program to assist its member churches with security.
Nearly all said their ministries walk a fine line between protecting their flock “from wolves,” and making the world feel welcome.
“Our ushers are trained in what to do should they notice someone suspicious, and if I’m not available, they may ask them to leave or call the police,” said Father John Guzaldo, pastor of St. Louis Catholic Church. “If someone comes in and just starts shooting, as this man did in Sutherland Springs, I would hope some of our members would shoot back. We have several legally licensed to carry firearms, and I do not prohibit guns.”
Erin Conaway, pastor of Seventh & James Baptist Church near the Baylor University campus, said tragedies such as that which unfolded Sunday “further erodes our illusion that there are safe places in the world.”
“We have greeters at the entrance to the sanctuary and at each door, but they are there to welcome you, let you know you belong here,” Conaway said. “That’s part of why church shootings are so disturbing. Churches are a collection of sinners and broken people, and it goes against our mission to lock the doors from the inside and to not welcome a stranger.”
Conaway said church leaders discussed security on Monday, “but our first response was to cry out our prayers of agony for the people there, not only for the killed and wounded, but for the entire community. I hope churches all over do not react in ways detrimental to our purpose.”
Billy Edwards, pastor of Hewitt’s Brazos Meadows Baptist Church, said churches must follow the Bible’s exhortation “to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” as they weigh their options for dealing with threats.
“Are we vulnerable? Oh, absolutely. I think most of us are vulnerable,” Edwards said. “Sadly, that’s the world we live in right now. But we are revamping our security plan, and we’ll let the congregation know all the details, so we’re on the same page. I’m sure we’ll ask law enforcement to help.”
Joe Carbajal, pastor of Mighty Wind Worship Center, 11th Street and Washington Avenue, said his church’s “safe” program features volunteers licensed to carry firearms who patrol the premises; ushers trained to deal with attendees wearing bulky clothing or carrying backpacks; and greeters asked to report suspicious activity or individuals.
“We have had homeless folks come into our services, high or drunk, and we had to address those issues,” Carbajal said. “We have had people with mental health issues attend, and we learned to deal with that. But we hope that by taking precautionary measures, we can feel as safe as possible here in Waco, Texas, in the society we live in today.”
Tim Randolph, director of the Waco Regional Baptist Association, said the organization is increasing efforts to train its 93 member churches in a protocol called Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events.
“We will be offering training in the next few days to deacons, pastors and church safety teams, in part due to what just happened in Texas,” he said. “We sent out brochures two weeks ago, and we’re in conversation with First Baptist Waco to set a date for the project. Several churches already have consulted with us, and there is growing interest.”
Matt Cawthon, a former Department of Public Safety trooper who founded a cowboy church on State Highway 6, oversees the WRBA’s protection ministry and believes congregational leaders owe members a safe place to gather and worship, even if it means hiring armed security guards.
“I think a uniformed police presence would be best, but there is usually some resistance by members offended by such things,” Cawthon said. “But if we don’t protect our own people, who will? Mental illness is a problem. Terrorism is a problem. And we have to stop those problems before they start. We have to get beyond our being offended.”
Cawthon said the protection program goes includes offering advice on dealing with intruders bent on mayhem but also features strategies for evacuating buildings, avoiding electrical shocks and preventing or dealing with fires and explosions. He calls such preparation scriptural.
”We need to be able to worship the Lord and let our guard down,” he said. “But Nehemiah prayed to God and still posted a guard. If you think something can’t happen, you’re naive. It can happen anywhere.”
Waco Police Sgt. Patrick Swanton said several places of worship around Greater Waco invite officers to attend services, “and most do not go anywhere unarmed.”
“We have held training events at local churches, and our community services division is happy to visit and offer advice on handling a situation involving an active shooter,” he added. “We have to watch out for each other. We’re of the mindset that if something does not look quite right, reach out to us and we’ll check it.” If there’s nothing to it, fantastic. We’d rather get a call than to not get a call and something tragic happens.”
What any given church can financially and practically do to prevent acts of violence will not necessarily stop everyone determined to inflict damage or death, said George W. Johnson Jr., presiding elder for the Northwest Conference, Paul Quinn Area of the AME Church.
“You can hire security if you are financially able, but some of the smaller rural congregations may not have the resources to do so,” Johnson said. “Some issues are simply beyond a church’s control. We are vulnerable as a society to individuals wanting to harm for whatever reason.”
The First Baptist Church of Waco released a statement in response to inquiries, saying in an email message, “We do have a church safety team that is responsible for monitoring our church grounds and facilities for a variety of safety issues. They also meet regularly to address, assess, and adjust their processes and procedures based on any relevant events that occur at the church, in our community, and across the nation.”
Said Leslie King, pastor of Waco’s First Presbyterian Church, “On one hand we are struck with awe and fear, and on the other hand we are told to fear not. How to do that wisely is always a challenge. For ourselves and others, it is not a matter of control but a matter of being responsive.”
Security has found itself on the agenda of larger churches for years, “but at smaller churches, like that in Sutherland Springs, I doubt it ever crossed their mind,” said Robert Creech, professor of pastoral leadership at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
Creech served as pastor or interim pastor at churches in Dallas and Houston before joining the Truett faculty, and at a larger congregation in the Dallas area “essentially had a bodyguard who followed me around.”
Still, he said, he is uneasy with the notion that churches should join “the culture of fear, the culture of force,” and proceed with installing metal detectors, hiring uniformed security officers and urging members to carry guns “as if they are preparing for a shootout at the OK Corral.”
“Being smart and alert to prevent bad things from happening makes sense, but we must consider the price of everything we do,” he said. “The more security-focused we become, the more we try to save our own lives, the more difficult it may become to live the life we’re called to.”