Keeping the flock safe: Faith leaders organize around security

  • Edwards Church, located in downtown Northampton, offers public services like the MANNA Soup Kitchen and Northampton Recovery Center in addition to regular religious services. Church leaders want to keep their doors open to the public while also ensuring the safety of their congregation. Debra Moore—Edwards Church

  • Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel is shown Wednesday in Northampton. Above, a sign indicating use of security cameras is on display at the synagogue. Church leaders throughout the region are assessing security and emergency response in the wake of last month’s shooting at a Texas church that killed 26 people. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY PHOTOS

  • A sign indicating use of security cameras is displayed Dec. 13, 2017 on the door at the entrance of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel is shown Dec. 13, 2017 in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A security camera is mounted near the entrance Dec. 13, 2017 of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel is shown Dec. 13, 2017 in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2017

AMHERST — Prompted by last month’s shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed 26 people, area faith leaders are organizing and assessing their security and emergency response capacity and seeking advice from law enforcement on how to best protect themselves from hate crimes and other crises.

Earlier this month, area faith leaders met at Hampshire College with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Massachusetts Emergency Response Management team and the U.S. attorney’s office to discuss security in houses of worship. The agencies co-sponsored the daylong event, inviting local faith leaders to attend.

“Security is much more than guns, gates and guards,” said Matthew McCann, New England regional director for the DHS’s Office of Infrastructure Protection. “When we talk security we also look at layers of collaboration, training and exercises.”

Panelists from these agencies discussed how faith leaders should deal with a range of threats including vandalism, arson, cyber and bomb threats, natural disasters and active shooter situations. They stressed the central role houses of worship play in their communities and their responsibility to protect their congregants to the best of their ability.

“I appreciated the presentation,” said the Rev. Michael McSherry, senior minister of Edwards Church in Northampton. “When you’re the leader of a faith community, people put their trust in the leadership, and one thing I do know about organizational leadership is that keeping people safe is a top priority.”

McSherry said the church will heed panelists’ advice and contact Northampton Police for a security assessment. Church officials are also taking more care to lock doors.

Houses of worship are counted among the 16 categories of “critical infrastructure,” as defined by the DHS as “essential services that underpin American society and serve as the backbone of our nation’s economy, security, and health.”

Other categories include health care centers, military bases, vital waterways and communication infrastructure.

“What we need to be aware of is that terrorism has been evolving,” McCann said. “We have had to move past traditional defense strategies when thinking about homeland security.”

Increasingly, hate speech targeted at houses of worship is happening online, via threatening messages or public posts. Panelists encouraged faith leaders to document everything, from vandalism to threatening Facebook comments, to help investigate and prosecute potential hate speech and hate crimes. The panel also discussed how to differentiate between the two.

One panel, moderated by Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Garland, featured four law enforcement officials: Jarret Wright, protective security advisor for DHS; Mike Wynn Pittsfield police chief; Jared Hewitt, a supervisory special agent for the FBI; and Paul Holloway, a senior advisor for External Partnership and Initiatives at MEMA.

“Security and resilience is a team sport,” said Daniel Modricker, the New England senior advisor for DHS. “The way to really address some of these challenges is knowing who your partners are and who some of your partners are you haven’t thought of before that you should be speaking to.”

McCann said the group held a similar meeting at Anna Maria College in Paxton in early December that reached over 180 faith-based organizations, and will hold two more in January in Taunton and Reading. Nationwide, the department has co-sponsored about 4,700 different events for faith-based communities.

“Our outreach with faith-based organizations is ongoing and it’s interfaith,” McCann said. “The whole goal at the end of this is promoting security, awareness and helping folks improve their resiliency and safety.”

According to McCann, DHS structures their security instruction around four key pillars of safety: connect, plan, train and report. The meetings intend to start a dialogue with local church, mosque and synagogue leaders about their existing security efforts and how they can improve.

Guns in church?

Debra Moore, the minister of faith formation at Edwards Church in Northampton, posed a question that got people talking: what role do firearms play in protecting houses of worship?

The consensus among faith leaders at the meeting, according to some who attended, was that most oppose firearms in places of worship, both by permit-holding members and hired security teams.

“Among the religious leaders in the room, the consensus would be that we hope people keep their firearms as far away from the insides of our facilities as possible,” McSherry, of Edwards Church, said. “I don’t oppose personal ownership.”

Legislation passed by federal House lawmakers last week would make it easier for permitted gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines where concealed carry is allowed. In Massachusetts, firearms are allowed inside religious institutions unless explicitly stated.

“If I saw someone with a gun in the synagogue I would ask them to remove it from the premises,” said Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton. “There is no reason to have a gun.”

The Rev. Douglas McGonagle of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Easthampton said he opposes having firearms in his parish, but that the church has no explicit policy against them.

“We absolutely do not want guns in our building, at any time, ever,” said the Rev. Vicki Kemper of the First Congregational Church of Amherst.

Kemper said her congregation is fortunate being across the street from the Amherst Police Department, giving them access to the fastest possible first response time and less need for firearms.

Until October, when the church began providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez, a Guatemalan man facing deportation, the church had an open door policy from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to allow homeless people a refuge from the cold. Now, doors are locked and there is more emphasis on security for Perez’s sake.

Carl Chinn, a retired Colorado police officer, who has tracked statistics on violent incidents at houses of worship nationally since 1999, has a different view.

“I personally believe that a firearm in the hands of a responsible defender is the best tool to use against a firearm in the hands of a killer,” Chinn said.

Uptick in incidents

In Springfield, Chinn has documented six violent incidents in or near houses of worship since 2009.

“While some of our churches are anti-gun, we found that others had already embraced the idea of having armed security,” said Archbishop Timothy Paul, president of the Council of Churches of Western Massachusetts.

Paul serves as senior pastor of the International Basilica in Springfield, overseeing approximately 300 churches on the council. Last week he chaired a “Church Security Summit” put on by the Council of Churches at the Centro Cristiano Nacion De Jesus church in Springfield. Sixty-one area churches were represented at the summit, according to Paul. One topic of discussion was the apparent rise in violent incidents at churches.

“As we began to look at the numbers you could not deny there is a trend that is higher rates of attacks against churches,” Paul said.

While more reporting of violent incidents at places of worship has made data easier to track over time, Chinn believes these incidents are still on the rise. To combat this trend, he started a nonprofit called the Faith Based Security Network, approved in October of this year. Defined as “a national network of local faith-based security operators” the nonprofit aims to connect faith-based organizations with trainers and other resources like his database.

“By connecting them that way they are also able to share best practices, and benchmark some things, and share threat intelligence and also be a legislative voice,” Chinn said.

According to statistics tracked by Chinn, there have been 24 violent incidents at religious sites in Massachusetts since 2009, and nationally the trend is on the rise. Mostly recently, a man tried to set fire to the Calvary Love Church in Springfield during an October 2016 service.

“I strongly believe there has been an erosion in moral values in our nation and because of that the bad guys, the attackers have no respect for religious institutions,” Chinn said. “They just don’t. I think that’s worse today than it was 20 years ago.”

Chinn urges faith communities to form volunteer security forces to protect their parishes. Appointing the right leaders from within the congregation is a crucial first step.

According to Chinn, 2017 has been the most violent year on record for churches, with 108 deaths at houses of worship as of November. The Sutherland Springs massacre was the 14th mass murder — defined as having four or more casualties — at a house of worship in the U.S. since the explosion of a Baptist church in Alabama in 1963.

Welcoming, warning

McGonagle, of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Easthampton, said national media coverage of mass shootings plays a role in fostering churchgoers’ fear.

“In the old days when you only knew about the things that happened within 100 miles of you things seemed fine, and now you hear about it whenever things happen around the planet,” McGonagle said. “We try to keep a level head about it and try not to give into the drama of the news media.”

The Rev. Sherry Tucker of the Easthampton Congregational Church agrees.

“We really are paying close attention to this, but we don’t want to overreact and go overboard in the other direction,” she said.

Tucker said she has been speaking with other area church leaders on the best way to ensure the safety of their flocks.

“We are pulling together volunteers, church members who are interested in brainstorming together how we can both keep our children and our congregation safe and still have our doors open to all who would wish to attend,” Tucker said.

“As a Jewish community we feel very safe, but we are also aware that being a Jewish community, the risk is not zero that we will be a target,” said David, of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton.

Congregration B’nai Israel has a good relationship with local police, said David, and they have consulted law enforcement on matters of security in the past. David notes that during large events, there is a “subtle but visible” police presence in the synagogue. As a Jewish community, the congregation is aware, even though violent incidents against synagogues in the U.S. are rare, David says.

He agrees with many area faith leaders that firearms have no place in his house of worship, and said the synagogue has always used what he describes as “commonsense security.”

In an average week, the synagogue sees anywhere between 200 to 300 people walk through the door, many of them returning members. They host religious services every Friday and Saturday, public events and preschool students every weekday.

“Our space is a heavily trafficked public space,” David said. “The mission of the synagogue has always been to be both a gathering place and focal point for the Jewish community and a service to the greater community.”

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 killed 26 people, including 20 children, the synagogue decided to install security cameras and start buzzing in guests during school hours to better protect students at the Gan Keshet Preschool. The federal government also took action after the shootings, ordering the DHS Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to develop active shooter trainings. Schools and houses of worship were of particular concern.

In October, an alleged arsonist set a fire that burned down a toolshed used by Abundance Farm, a farm co-managed by the synagogue, the Northampton Survival Center and the Lander Grinspoon Academy on Prospect Street. David said the matter was investigated, law enforcement determined it was not a hate crime, and the synagogue has not seen any similar incidents since.

“I think we have a responsibility to put these events in context and make choices that are rational and thoughtful,” David said.

“Houses of worship walk this thin line,” said McSherry of Edwards Church. “We strike a balance between being welcoming and encouraging people to visit, but at the same time we are responsible for people who do come in and keeping them safe.”

Archbishop Paul said that even though he leads the Council of Churches of Western Massachusetts, which represents a range of denominations of the Christian faith, all religions are welcome to reach out to the council for security advice.

“The demand is great and the need is real,” Paul said. “We will remain prepared so we can provide a safe place for those who worship at our churches.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.