Clergy Corner, Nov. 24, 2017

Clergy Corner, Nov. 24, 2017

Even before a white supremacist killed nine churchgoers on Bible study night at a historically black house of worship in South Carolina, the Rev. KEITH THOMAS was losing sleep over an issue they didn't cover at Moody Bible Institute.

"To be very honest, we've been very concerned about the scenario of an active shooter for the last three years," says the pastor at Champaign's Mount Olive Missionary Baptist. "We've stepped up efforts to have security forces monitoring the hallways during every service."

Before a masked gunman entered Tennessee's Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in September and started firing in every direction, the Rev. STEVEN LOFTUS posed a question to a few of his Danville Holy Family congregants that he'd never before had reason to ask.

"I asked some of my policemen if they carry their weapon into Mass with them — and they do," he says. "All have the right to self-defense, and there is also the duty to protect the innocent."

And before the tiny Texas town of Sutherland Springs this month became the site of the worst mass church shooting in modern American history, a two-day specialized security-training seminar for church leaders was already being organized 940 miles away, in St. Joseph.

"Statistics show that violent deaths in churches have doubled in the last 10 years. And deadly force incidents at churches have tripled," says church security expert and Texas pastor PERFETO ESQUIBEL, who's being brought in from Fort Worth for the seminar at St. Joseph's Living Word Family Church. "It's quite obvious that the church as a whole is under what Christians call persecution."

What's become front-page news in recent months has been a fear of pastors everywhere for a few years, several of them told us this week. Here are some of the ways they're trying to keep their churches both sacred and safe.

1. Training ushers and greeters to be on the lookout — particularly for newcomers who show up after a service starts.

"While all churches welcome first-time visitors, churches must now develop the ability to do visual, 'on the spot' screening of persons who look suspicious," says RANDY ROBINSON, pastor at St. James UMC in Danville. "While this seems antithetical to many churches' basic convictions about welcoming the stranger, this is in keeping with the culture-wide admonition: 'If you see anything or anyone suspicious, please report it.'"

2. Developing emergency-response plans in case the unthinkable happens.

This will be one of the primary topics Esquibel covers next Friday and Saturday in St. Joseph.

"Gone are the days where we can simply come to church, sing our hymns and hear sound preaching, thinking that no one would ever attack a church," he says. "All responsible and caring pastors must provide a plan to protect their congregations in the case of a violent attack."

That, he says, includes answering questions such as: Where do the people exit? Where are the safe rooms? Who will evacuate the people? And, who will attack the attacker?

3. Remembering the mission.

"The United Methodist Church's slogan is: Open hearts, open minds, open doors," says the Rev. MATT FILICSKY, pastor at three Vermilion County churches. "It is my hope and desire to live this slogan out even during times that require us to take a look at church security. ... For the church to survive, it still must be a place where the least and the lost of our society can find the love of Christ and loving people to help them."

4. Talking about guns — both how to keep them out and who should be allowed in with them.

"It never dawned on us that we would ever reach a time where we'd have to actually tell people to not bring guns into a church service," says Thomas, whose church has put up stickers on every door to let anyone who enters know that Mount Olive is a gun-free zone.

Next week, Esquibel will try to sell pastors here on the benefit of having "trained, responsible and reliable" armed security guards on hand for every service.

5. Trusting God.

It's as simple as that for the Rev. MAXINE RIXMAN, pastor at Rantoul's Bethany Park Christian: "The ethic of hospitality that runs through the Bible teaches us that our place of worship is to be open and sharing. It's a truism that 'violence begets violence.' We're to trust in the spirit of God's love, not the idolatry of guns."

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Gene H wrote on November 24, 2017 at 8:11 pm

I don't want to offend or put anyone down but ask yourselves, where have the vast majority of mass killings with firearms taken place?  Yes, that is correct, GUN FREE ZONES!  What a novel and great idea, advertise your church as a soft target to the next killer by plastering stickers all over it, no guns allowed.  Certainly no criminal would think to enter after reading one of those.  Why wasn't that thought of sooner?  A bit harsh, so is burying your parishioners. 

I work for a Christian ministry that has an armed security team.  i was asked about putting up signs saying no guns allowed and I advised against it.  Instead, let the criminal wonder what they might be met with.  Part of our team is openly armed, some are concealed.  Does that make some a target, yes it does.  But it also sets the tone that we are prepared to defend our most valuable resource, the people who come through our doors to work, go to school, or visit.

These are not active shooter incidents, they are active killer incidents.  People who shoot competitively, for hunting, self-defense, or just plinking, are active shooters, not those who set out to commit murder.  I wish the media and Americans who mean well could get that simple fact straight.