Churches Get Serious about Protecting Flocks from Violence

November 26, 2008 at 6:45 am Leave a comment

church-officers.jpgA gunman bursts into a church sanctuary and opens fire on hundreds of worshippers. Vandals target a house of worship, spray-painting its walls or defacing its artifacts. A father who lost custody of his child finds a way to enter the church nursery to kidnap a toddler.

They may be rare occurrences, but for many Americans who previously thought of Sunday as a day of rest from the world’s evils, such scenarios represent worrisome, and increasingly realistic, threats to their spiritual ritual.
In response to increased interest from church leaders, a cottage industry of law enforcement officers has formed to help church bodies protect themselves. 
Some of them are also suggesting to church leaders that they use the opportunity to reach out to potential new members — to evangelize to off-duty officers the churches hire for security. 
Last week, Windsor Crossing Community Church in Chesterfield sent four of its employees — including two Chesterfield police officers who work security for the church on weekends — to Kansas City for a training seminar taught by former Special Weapons and Tactics officers on “church security and intruder response.”
The nondenominational evangelical church, with 4,300 attendees over five services each weekend, is one of the busiest houses of worship in the St. Louis area. And at 54,000 square feet, the church, in the middle of a massive field next to the Spirit of St. Louis airport, is also one of the largest.
The combination of its size, open floor plan and constant bustle makes the church susceptible to trespassers.
While the FBI does not keep statistics on church violence, safety consultants and insurance agencies say a rash of incidents in recent years has forced churches to confront the possibility of an attack. 
The latest incident occurred Sunday. Police in New Jersey are searching for a man they suspect in the shooting deaths of two people — including his estranged wife — worshipping at a Syrian Orthodox church. A third victim is in “extremely critical” condition, according to The Associated Press.
Churches are targeted because “they are open to anyone and typically they have limited security,” said Scott Krebill, founder of Emergency Planning Services in Parma, Mich., which designs emergency response procedures for churches. “People are easy targets when they’re at church because they are in a vulnerable position.”
Mitzi Thomas of Brotherhood Mutual in Fort Wayne, Ind., which insures churches, said her agency used to focus more on financial security but “the range of issues churches face today has changed dramatically.”
“Churches are much, much, much more aware today than they were two years ago, and especially five years ago, about the possibility of violence.”
A Missouri company, Strategos International, offered its first course for churches last week in Kansas City. Vaughn Baker, president of Strategos and a former Lee’s Summit police officer and SWAT team member, led a daylong seminar for about 40 people from mostly evangelical churches, a third of whom were law-enforcement church consultants.
Baker is a member of Abundant Life Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit and helped design his church’s security plan. At the seminar, Baker stressed that Strategos’ guiding biblical principal comes from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his apostles about coming persecutions.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” Jesus says, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
After a short prayer, Baker — who also teaches a course called “Active Shooter First Responder Tactical Training” to police departments nationwide and as far away as Pakistan and El Salvador — ran down a list of church attacks in the last two years: Covington, Ky.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Suitland, Md.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Neosho, Mo.; Bates City, Mo. 
Strategos has already booked its church security seminar in Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Little Rock, Ark.; Orlando, Fla.; and Nashville, Tenn., for next year.
Baker said Strategos’ seminars are open to synagogues and mosques as well.
He said most shootings, whether they happen in a school, business or church, end before, or as, police arrive at the scene. So “just sitting and waiting for the good guys to get there is not an option” for church leaders, he said.
Many churches opt to hire professional law enforcement for security. But off-duty cops are expensive. Steve Ijames, a former deputy chief of police in Springfield, Mo., said off-duty officers can make upward of $25 an hour for security work. At big churches with multiple services, the cost can run into the thousands of dollars per week. 
And that doesn’t include the costs of installing security camera systems, paying for professional staff and technology to secure a church’s nursery or protecting the offering — from pew to office safe to bank drop.
Laurel Dunwoody, the administrator for the 2,000-member First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, said she attended the Strategos seminar for “concrete steps and action plans” to better secure her church.
Dunwoody said because of First Baptist’s location downtown and the locations of some entrances, it often has unwanted visitors from the nearby county jail and local bars. Last March, she said, a drunk man broke into the church at 2 a.m. and “took out his hostility” on church property until police arrived.
Baker also pointed out recent gatherings, some of which became violent, outside churches across the country protesting the defeat of Proposition 8 in California, which overturned a court order in May allowing same-sex couples to wed in the state.
For several hours, participants in Baker’s seminar discussed everything from communication protocols to pastor protection to the theological decisions church leaders have to make about whether security officers should carry firearms.
Toward the end of the day, Baker spoke about the opportunities for church officials to evangelize to the officers protecting them. In a segment called, “Developing an Outreach for Law Enforcement,” Baker said cops “deal with the worst the world has to offer” and many are “in need of eternal salvation.”
“Ministering to the needs of those that protect (churches) benefits communities in which we live and ultimately results in improved police service,” Baker said. “Most officers do not realize that the Bible contains truth that applies to them.”
That was the case with Steve Borawski, an officer with the Chesterfield police department who began working security off duty at Windsor Crossing in 2004. 
Borawski, now 42, grew up Roman Catholic. When he began working at Windsor Crossing, he would often watch one of the many flat-screen monitors outside the sanctuary to listen to the pastor’s sermon.
“Eventually, I made it into the sanctuary and stood in the back,” Borawski said. Soon, he was talking to church leaders about his faith. “Within six months, I was hooked.”
Borawski — one of the two Chesterfield officers who traveled to Kansas City for the Strategos seminar — began attending classes at the church and bringing his kids, who loved Windsor Crossing’s laid-back vibe (most attendees wear jeans and T-shirts) and Christian rock music.
In June, Borawski was baptized at the church. He said “three or four” of the several Chesterfield cops who patrol the church — four at a time during busy Sunday services — h
ave begun attending, too.
“Instead of going through the motions at church each week, I was able to take what I’ve learned outside the building,” he said. “And I’ve passed that along — I go back to the station and say, ‘This place is incredible.’ I thank God every day for this place.”
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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