Houses of worship, feeling unsafe in the midst of mass shootings, have trained their parishioners to be more alert to newcomers amongst them and to weigh the consequences of arming themselves, law enforcement authorities are saying.
Much of the attention to safety in churches, mosques and temples across South Carolina heightened after last year’s massacre at Mother Emanuel, a historically black church in Charleston, according to the FBI, Columbia-area police agencies and churches.
The fear of the stranger in our midst is new to many houses of worship. But tighter church security, it seems, is one of the legacies of the Emanuel AME shootings.
Some places of worship have hired armed police to stand watch in their sanctuaries. Others have installed buzz-in systems for their doorways, added lighting or increased safety drills. Many have asked for concealed weapons training and safety training for their flocks.
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The 14,000-member Bible Way Baptist Church in south Columbia is among those that has an armed deputy in its sanctuary for Sunday services and all weekday bible studies.
“We saw it as a visible deterrent from somebody doing something crazy,” said Chip Jackson, who oversees security of parishioners.
The African-American church used to limit deputies to walking the vestibule and hallways and helping with traffic, Jackson said. After the slaying of the Emanuel Nine by an avowed racist, a deputy was moved into the sanctuary.
Bible Way’s pastor, state Sen. Darrell Jackson, said the church has tightened its security protocols over the past decade from a time when it used parishioners to watch for suspicious activities.
But thefts at Bible Way, outbreaks of mass shootings across the nation and a history of fires at black Southern churches combined to ratchet up safety precautions, the Jacksons said.
Heightened security measures also have been put into place at downtown Columbia’s First Baptist Church since the Mother Emanuel attack. Safety measures date back at least five years, said Steve Phillips, an associate pastor who handles security for the 6,100-member, largely white church.
Employee access to church offices is now limited by a security system that requires electronic passes, Phillips said. More and brighter lights have been installed along the Marion Street side where children come and go to church services and activities. A private security company has been watching over the children for several years, he said.
“I think that, probably, after Charleston and other events in our country, it prompted us to go back and evaluate,” Phillips said. “Anytime you see something like that, and especially when it’s that close to home, it affects you.”
Uniformed Richland County deputies had been paid to provide help with traffic, and one was in the sanctuary before the Charleston killings, Phillips said. First Baptist also had a security camera system, and church workers are trained in safety procedures and in dealing with mass shootings.
“We feel like we’ve got a good team ... and our folks have a great atmosphere for worship,” he said.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, a member of First Baptist, said his office “almost forced ourselves” onto houses of worship to be security conscious a decade ago. Deputies offered then, as now, safety assessments, security briefings and training in dealing with active shooters, among other aspects of safety.
Since the slayings of the Charleston parishioners, the number of requests from churches for guidance about concealed weapons permits jumped by 50 percent, Lott said. Asked how many of the 40-plus religious institutions that have sought safety training since last summer also inquired about arming parishioners, he said, “A lot.”
“We’ll assist in helping them get concealed weapons permits,” he said. “That’s some of the options we give them.” Whether church members get armed is an internal decision, he said.
Don Wood is an FBI attorney in the Columbia office who is involved in safety training for religious institutions.
In presentations to hundreds of people in seven S.C. cities since July, federal agents explain that a hail of bullets from armed and frightened parishioners can strike unintended targets.
“In a gun battle we (trained police) are going to miss with the majority of our shots,” Wood said. “The message is, you may think that having parishioners with concealed weapons permits is a good thing: Your concealed weapons parishioner pulls out their gun and puts down the shooter and everybody goes home. That’s not going to happen.”
Another aspect that churchgoers ask about is how to find a balance between having a welcoming religious environment and self preservation, he said.
“They’re interested in what to do when a stranger walks in their door,” Wood said.
The FBI says there is no precise profile of an active shooter. But there are patterns to watch: Be extra alert to someone who has recently had a trauma in their life. Watch for someone who is carrying an oversized bag or wearing a coat in warm weather. Active shooters almost always enter through the main door and seldom pursue their targets outdoors.
The Columbia Police Department also conducts training for houses of worship. It allows officers to provide traffic assistance, but police have not provided security inside any church, chief Skip Holbrook said.
The entire force has been trained in dealing with active shooters and some 70 officers have received additional First Aid training for mass casualty situations, Holbrook said. Recently, the department has begun offering a new level of training for businesses on how to carry out lock downs, evacuations and other counter-violence measures.
First Baptist’s Phillips said the frequency of mass shootings, most recently the nation’s deadliest at a Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub, serves as a sobering reminder of rampant violence as well as the role of religion.
“It underscores the fact that man is simple and desperately sinful,” Phillips said. “The only hope for the world is the faith in God.”