The gunman who killed 26 people Sunday at a Baptist church in rural Texas reopened a question Charlotte church officials have lately pondered: How can they keep sanctuaries for the spirit also safe for the body?
Some churches stepped up their security measures in 2015, following the massacre of nine parishioners at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C. White supremacist Dylann Roof was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to death.
There have been a dozen other U.S. church shootings since 2012, including an episode in Nashville, Tenn., that killed a woman and wounded six others in September, according to Associated Press reports.
Charlotte church leaders said Monday the Texas shooting serves to heighten awareness of potential violence. Some had already begun to prepare.
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Charlotte’s Little Rock AME Zion Church was already in the process of installing surveillance cameras and posting uniformed security guards when news of the Texas massacre flashed Sunday. The 1,000-member church also maintains a volunteer security team and works with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police on surveillance of its campus near uptown.
“I think there will be some more obvious measures that we’ll put in place, just making sure that (security members) are on post and that when people come to church they know that someone is watching,” said the Rev. Dwayne Walker, the church’s pastor.
“I just don’t want people to get to the place where they can’t come to a church and feel safe,” he said. “You just can’t be so overcome by paranoia that you don’t leave home, but we have to continue to send the message that God’s house is a refuge.”
Gun violence should be part of that discussion, Walker added.
Charlotte’s St. Matthew Catholic Church, with more than 10,000 families the largest Catholic parish in the U.S., had announced in late 2015 that uniformed and plain-clothed police officers would be present at weekend masses. Items that could conceal a weapon – including backpacks, diaper bags and laptops – were banned from the sanctuary.
Those measures are still in place, operations director Antoinette Usher said, and have been met with little push-back from parishioners. A private contractor was again reviewing the church’s security measures when Sunday’s shooting took place.
“The goal is the well-being of the parishioner, not only the spiritual nourishment they receive but (church leaders) are also very concerned about the physical being,” Usher said. “This should be a spiritual oasis. Whether it’s a Catholic church, a temple or any place of worship, people should be able to worship in safety.”
Leaders from another large Charlotte congregation, Calvary Church, said they have also reviewed security measures in recent years.
“We have full-time security staff onsite and supplement our security officers with off-duty law enforcement,” spokeswoman Michele Davies said in a statement. “We also continue to monitor and improve particular areas such as access control, visual monitoring, real-time communication and ongoing training for staff and volunteers.”
Fifty to 75 houses of worship have attended “active survival” seminars the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has offered to businesses, churches and other organizations since mid-2015 to keep people safe during shootings.
The training sessions include some history on shootings and their psychological effects as well as practical training on the ABCs – avoid, barricade, counter – of surviving an attack.
But “we cannot give our program a guarantee somebody’s going to survive if they’re involved in an active shooter situation,” Lt. Steve Huber told reporters Monday.
Understanding that everyone is a potential victim is a good first step, he said, and anyone entering a confined or crowded space should identify the exits and consider a safety plan. Churches and other gathering places should create specific plans for active shooter situations, Huber said, that CMPD officers will review.
A Charlotte-based company, Punch Technologies, counts several Charlotte-area churches among its growing clientele for safety communications technology. Its Punch Alert mobile app helps customers communicate during emergencies, quickly call for help or post mass alerts.
The company cites data from the Center for Homicide Research (CHR) showing 139 shootings in Christian churches between 1980 and 2005. CEO Greg Artzt said churches may be targets simply because they’re public spaces filled with unsuspecting potential victims.
“These are just soft targets,” Artzt said. Shooters may “just want to make a certain impact, their lives are not meaningful and they want something to make them meaningful.”