Church leaders admonish caution, awareness in shooting aftermath

DARKE COUNTY – Father John White of Greenville’s St. Mary’s Church believes last Sunday’s mass shooting at a church in Texas “should raise our awareness on how vulnerable we are.”

What should have been a peaceful break from worldly woes turned in to a deadly nightmare for congregants at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, with 26 killed and another 20 wounded.  It was reported mid-week that about half of those gunned down were children.

Investigators say a history of domestic violence led the 26-year-old former Air Force serviceman to conduct the mass shooting.

“Our ideas are not,” White said of worshippers during Mass or service, “’do I have to be afraid of being a target of someone’s anger, frustration or political statements’? We really are vulnerable where we gather,” be it in “church, school, the public square, walking down the street.”

What are local congregations doing to ensure they are safe from an active shooter situation during worship services?

At St. Mary’s, White said, there has been a renewed emphasis put on safety – both for the rectory and St. Mary’s School across the street.

“Our parish had a safety check,” White said, following the June 2016 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

where nine people were gunned down during an evening prayer service.

White said part of the parish’s safety plan included the installation of cameras, both at the school and at the church.

Noting that this step would be more effective to help with the aftermath of any violent incident, White said it still offers a sense of security.

“There’s always, now, that kind of threat whenever the doors are open, and of course the church doors are open,” White said.

Over at Greenville’s EUM on Sater Street, the doors also remain open for worshippers.

“During services, front doors are unlocked, but they are being watched, also,” explained Lead Pastor Jeff Harper.

Not only are the front doors under security observation, areas including the church’s Children’s Ministry also are locked with assigned security personnel actively patrolling during services and activities.

“We have a safety team that’s been in place for maybe two years,” Harper said. “There are police officers and sheriff’s deputies on the team – they are armed.”

Others who have CCWs – Conceal Carry Weapon permits – have been trained by the EUM safety team, Harper explained.

“We want them to be trained, we just don’t want people sitting with guns in the congregation,” said Harper, who admitted he took the training along with safety team members. “They must qualify, go to the range and make sure they know how to use” a firearm.

EUM safety team training takes place two to four times per year, Harper said.

“I feel like we have a real strong safe place,” Harper said of his church. “Even during the mid-week service, AWANA, there’s security there also.”

Harper said he has had members of his congregation come to him and ask if “we are safe at church. I tell them about our security team. Yes, I’ve had people come up and ask.”

East Main Street Church of Christ in Greenville may be one of the county’s smaller congregations, but a couple church members who have CCWs are carrying during services, said Equipping Minister Jim Morehouse.

“Some of our members who have a CCW have asked if they could carry their weapons with them. We certainly trust them and said that would be fine.”

Morehouse said as he was watching the coverage of the Texas shooting, he realized his congregation didn’t really have a safety plan. “We need to address that. As a small church, you never know about these things. It really is a concern in our world today. We need to be thinking about it, be cautious.”

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