Congregations mull how to keep sacred spaces safe
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Eleven killed at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in October.
Twenty-six slain at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in November 2017.
Seven fatally shot at Quebec Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec, Canada, in January 2017.
Nine gunned down at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
Six dead at Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August 2012.
Houses of worship are usually places of refuge, but in recent years they’ve also become sites of carnage. Erie hasn’t experienced a mass shooting in a church, temple, mosque or other place of worship, but the threat is real to local congregations, and they’re responding. Security cameras, locked doors and people armed with guns are ways in which Erie-area congregations have reacted.
“We just can’t afford to have people come here and shoot us all up,” said the Rev. Dale Snyder Sr., pastor of Erie’s St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the doors are locked after worship starts on Sunday mornings.
Since the Pittsburgh shooting, the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, both of Erie’s Jewish congregations have upped their security, although leaders here were hesitant to reveal details.
“We have engaged security and we’re looking into what else we need to do,” said Doris Pinski, president of Brith Sholom, Erie’s Conservative Jewish congregation.
She said the synagogue, which sold its land and building to the Jefferson Educational Society in 2013 but continues to hold worship in part of the building, has always locked the door to the lobby once a service starts.
Pinski said the members, who are mostly older and number fewer than 100, haven’t appeared hesitant to attend worship since the Pittsburgh shooting. Some of the victims were known to Erie’s Jewish community and the rabbi who serves Brith Sholom comes from Pittsburgh.
The attack there was sad and a reflection on the world, where such incidents are occurring not only in churches and synagogues, Pinski said.
“This should be the safe place for everyone,” she said. “It should be a place of emotional and spiritual refuge.”
Edie Joseph, president of the congregation at Temple Anshe Hesed, the Erie area’s Reform Jewish congregation, said: “We have increased our security. It is inevitable. It’s a sign of the times, unfortunately.”
Joseph said Anshe Hesed, which celebrated the opening of its new building in Millcreek Township less than two months before the Tree of Life shooting, already had state-of-the-art security cameras installed and kept its doors locked. Now, she said, the temple has added tools that can be used to break out windows and has taught members how to use them in case they need to escape a shooter.
Armed security guards from an agency are hired to be at worship services and other events, Joseph said.
She said having to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for guards is difficult for a small congregation like Anshe Hesed, which has about 150 families. The money wasn’t written into the budget and temple leaders are looking for grants and at adding an additional fee for members, Joseph said.
But she said she thinks members, overall, are happy with the security efforts.
“I know they feel much safer having an armed security,” she said.
While the Pittsburgh shooting was the latest and the closest to home for Erie-area congregations, many were already thinking about security before the 2018 massacre.
The Rev. John Downey, dean of Erie’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul, said his church hasn’t made recent changes to security measures, some of which have been in place for about a decade. They include security cameras and a hired security person who watches the doors during Sunday services.
Downey said the cathedral has so far resisted putting up barriers to people by locking doors during the day, except if only one or two staff members are present.
“We’re the kind of place that gets walk-ins,” he said.
But he understands sites that have locked their doors.
At Almakarim Islamic Foundation, also in Erie, nothing was changed as a result of the Pittsburgh shooting.
Sheikh Mazin Alsahlani said his building already had a security camera and there are plans to look at more options for the foundation that has so far felt comfortable in the city for more than 20 years.
“We are safe, that’s what we feel,” Alsahlani said.
Walnut Creek Baptist Church in Millcreek began pushing forward with increased security plans about a year before the lone gunman opened fire at the Jewish synagogue. The improved efforts were the result of the church shooting in Texas in 2017, the Rev. Fred Ayers said.
The number of security cameras at his church was increased and outside cameras were added that can even allow viewers to catch vehicle information in the parking lot.
“We can capture any vehicle coming and going,” Ayers said.
Views from all the cameras can be monitored from a control center in the church’s sound room and on an iPad that allows monitoring from anywhere, he said.
An emergency call button connects the church to 911.
There’s a procedure in place to lock down the nursery, protect the children.
Entrance doors are locked, with people having to push a buzzer and be granted entrance by someone inside. Doors are opened as people arrive for worship, but once services start doors are locked again and latecomers are only admitted by ushers.
And some members of the church, who are licensed to carry firearms, wear their weapons to Walnut Creek under their regular clothing on Sunday mornings, Ayers said.
He wouldn’t go into too many details about what he called the undercover plainclothes armed guards, other than to say all are male members of the church with a license to carry a gun.
“Obviously, pulling a gun is the last thing we want to do,” he said. “The first thing is to call 911.”
He said he hasn’t received pushback from members on the security measures and wants people to know they do exist at Walnut Creek.
“To me, that’s a great deterrent,” he said.
St. James AME also has security people in regular clothing. Snyder, the pastor, said they are four male members of the congregation with military experience. He said one of them has to let in latecomers once the service starts and the doors are locked.
Keeping intruders out was the first priority, Snyder said. An emergency evacuation plan and active-shooter training are also on the agenda at St. James.
Snyder said security has been on his congregation’s radar since nine people were killed at a sister church in Charleston, but it hasn’t affected attendance.
“A house of worship should not be a place where we have to arm ourselves, but we are living in very different times,” he said.
He said a church has to be on its guard.
“It’s unfortunate we’re coming to that kind of society,” Snyder said.
While security measures have become part of the cost of doing business even for churches, the pastor said it takes away from part of the mission of a place of worship.
“All these things take money and energy away from feeding the hungry and clothing the naked,” he said.
Snyder and the Rev. Drew Himes, pastor of Church of the Cross, a Presbyterian congregation in Millcreek, said churches have to find ways to be open and loving and safe at the same time.
“We balanced security versus availability,” said Himes, whose church elders began looking at security because they felt their building was somewhat out of the way for police who might have to respond to harm there.
“As of January 1, we have our doors locked all the time,” the pastor said. A video screen allows visitors to talk to staff members, who can “buzz” people into the building.
Himes and leaders of the other area congregations said they did research that included speaking to security experts and law enforcement, attending safety training and even looking for what they called common-sense solutions.
Bypassing fancy technology that could have cost thousands of dollars, Church of the Cross installed two $10 wireless doorbells to help control who gains access to the nursery and children’s area, Himes said. Another door was changed so it can only be used as an exit, not an entrance.
He said that having to even talk about such security measures is something a lot of religious leaders weren’t prepared to do.
“This is not a class we ever got in seminary,” Himes said.
He said people “like to think it can’t happen here. But we don’t know, so we want to be vigilant and cautious but still be welcoming to people.”
The Rev. Clifford Hamilton said his Harborcreek Township congregation was pushed to look at security after the Texas shooting, which was a wakeup call because it occurred in a church similar in size to East Erie Assembly of God. Hamilton said it has 45 members and 60 to 70 people at Sunday worship.
He said pastors in Harborcreek recently got together to hear from speakers about what to do in the case of an active shooter. He learned things like how to stop the bleeding if someone is shot. He returned to his church and, at the beginning of a service, talked to members about hitting the floor if someone starts shooting, trying not to attract attention to themselves and getting to an exit when possible.
Hamilton said it’s something he never thought he’d be dealing with. It’s not the purpose of church.
“It’s a bad state of affairs,” he said.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com