Editorial: Security an issue for faith leaders

  • First Congregational Church in Amherst File Photo

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

It was a sign of the times when about 50 area faith leaders spent a day earlier this month at Hampshire College in Amherst with law enforcement officials addressing security in houses of worship.

Concern about sacred spaces being targeted was heightened after a gunman killed 26 people worshiping at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5. That was the 14th fatal shooting since 2012 at a house of worship in the United States, according to the Associated Press.

In addition to those high-profile tragedies, churches and synagogues in the Valley cite a variety of reasons for tightening security, mostly through increased vigilance and by locking doors more frequently. In some cases, houses of worship are considering using armed security.

The First Congregational Church in Amherst previously had an open-door policy between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to allow homeless people a place to temporarily find shelter. However, that ended in October when the church began providing sanctuary to Lucio Perez, a Guatemalan man facing deportation. Doors to the church are now locked and there is generally more awareness about security because of Perez.

However, the church, which is across the street from the Amherst Police Department, draws the line at guns. “We absolutely do not want guns in our building, at any time, ever,” says the Rev. Vicki Kemper, minister of the church.

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

David said the synagogue has consulted with law enforcement and uses what he describes as “common-sense security.” During an average week, between 200 and 300 people enter the synagogue, which hosts religious services every Friday and Saturday, preschool students every weekday and a variety of public events. During large events, there is a “subtle but visible” police presence in the synagogue, David says.

“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,” he adds. After 26 people, including 20 children, were killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the synagogue installed security cameras and began buzzing in guests during school hours to better protect students at its Gan Keshet Preschool.

In October, an arsonist set a fire that burned down a tool shed used by Abundance Farm, which is co-managed by the synagogue. Authorities determined it was not a hate crime. “I think we have a responsibility to put these events in context and make choices that are rational and thoughtful,” David says.

Archbishop Timothy Paul is senior pastor of the International Basilica in Springfield and president of the Council of Churches in Western Massachusetts which has about 300 members. He co-chaired a “church security summit” this month at the Centro Cristiano Nacion de Jesus in Springfield, which was attended by representatives of 61 area churches.

“As we began to look at the numbers you could not deny that there is a trend that is higher rates of attacks against churches,” Paul says. “While some of our churches are anti-gun, we found that others had already embraced the idea of having armed security.”

The sessions at Hampshire College focused on a number of threats, including vandalism, arson, cyber attacks, bomb scares and natural disasters, in addition to active shooters. “Security is much more than guns, gates and guards,” Matthew McCann, New England regional director for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection, told religious leaders. “When we talk security, we also look at layers of collaboration, training and exercises.”

Houses of worship are among the 16 categories of “critical infrastructure,” as defined by DHS. “Our outreach with faith-based organizations is ongoing and it’s interfaith,” McCann says. “The whole goal at the end of this is promoting security, awareness and helping folks improve their resiliency and safety.”

We are glad that religious leaders are taking matters of security seriously. We hope that they adopt common-sense approaches to safety that preserve houses of worship as sacred spaces, rather than armed encampments.