WNC faith communities, law enforcement collaborate on security

SACRED SAFE SPACE: Concern for the safety of worshippers at religious services has increased in the wake of recent mass shootings and threats. Local law enforcement departments are working with faith communities to develop new security strategies. Photo courtesy of the Henderson County Sheriff's Office

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

Attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew, these words outline a path of radical acceptance of the inevitable cruelties of the world. At its best, the commandment has inspired leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi to cultivate nonviolent resistance and bring about social transformation. Too often, however, communities of faith may find that Jesus’ idealistic counsel rings hollow in the face of tragedy.

Recent high-profile mass shootings, such as the 2015 attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine worshippers dead, have caused faith leaders to ask what they can do to protect their congregations. While such incidents are rare — the nonprofit Center for Homicide Research found only seven shootings of four or more people at U.S. churches between 1980 and 2005, the most recent period for which data is available — they draw attention to the role of security in places of worship.

For the Rev. Bill Michael of the Mountain Harvest Worship Center in Hendersonville, faith involves both idealism and a call to practical action to safeguard his parishioners. “We have to understand that there are different levels of teaching in Scripture; some of them are directed to an individual, and some of them are directed to society,” he explains. “As individuals, we’re taught to forgive. But in his Letter to the Romans, Paul talks about how those leading society are placed there for our security and have been given authority to exercise punishment when necessary.”

And for faith leaders wondering what they can do to improve security, law enforcement agencies across Western North Carolina offer assessments and training to help places of worship ensure the safety of those who gather under their roofs.

Meeting demand

Perhaps the most popular of these partnerships has been the House of Worship Safety and Security Class presented by the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Charles McDonald says he began offering the training two years ago in response to trends he’d observed in community violence.

“It’s our obligation, as sheriffs over counties, to help make citizens aware of threats that we see coming, and what was going on at the time indicated that churches would be one of those high-priority targets for deranged people,” McDonald explains. “But you don’t want to sound the alarm and leave them sitting, so our next obligation is to help people be more prepared.”

At first, attendance at the classes, which were offered roughly twice a year, ranged from 12 to 30 participants. After the November 2017 mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, however, demand surged. Beginning in December, more than 70 people registered for each of four monthly classes, forcing McDonald to move the course from his office’s training room to the Henderson County Courthouse and schedule an additional session in late February.

Other local law enforcement agencies, including the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, also provide regular assistance to communities of faith. Over the past year, for example, the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office has sent staff to evaluate the security of more than 30 churches.

“One of our deputies or criminal investigators goes out to the church and does a full assessment, from physical areas of weakness in the building to staff vetting, working with children and internet safety,” says Lindsay Regner, the agency’s public information officer. “It’s not just security as far as the building is concerned — it’s more of a comprehensive process.”

The big picture

McDonald agrees that faith leaders need to take a wide-angle approach to safety. “Being safe really starts with having a security plan in place that doesn’t necessarily start or stop with the worst-case scenario of an active shooter,” he explains. “It’s about how you prevent bad things from happening in the congregation that aren’t normally expected.”

Public discussions of church security, McDonald notes, frequently jump to the extreme case of a mass shooting and debate the use of weapons among worshippers. “Some people find it unusual that we’re not teaching people to grab guns and arm everybody in the congregation,” he says. While he acknowledges that firearms can play a role in a security plan, his training program places a much higher priority on discouraging incidents from occurring in the first place.

For many houses of worship, improving security can start with re-examining the common-sense practices that are part of normal operating procedure. Simply greeting newcomers with eye contact and a firm handshake often reveals people with negative intentions. “If somebody’s there to do bad things, there’s generally a demeanor that they’ll display, especially when confronted with someone who welcomes them,” McDonald points out.

Michael, who took the sheriff’s class last year, appreciated the call for enhanced awareness. The class, he says, “covers a lot of things that you may not think of right off the bat as having to do with church security, such as lighting, parking areas and access into or out of the building. Most people tend to think in an honest manner — they’re not figuring out how to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be.”

Regner adds that many faith leaders have a blind spot for internet security, which has become increasingly important as houses of worship promote events and handle more business online. “A lot of folks see the internet as a way to positively connect with their community, but there are areas that can be left wide open in terms of security,” she says. “Financial scams and social media use on mission trips are two big concerns.”

From theory to practice

After taking the House of Worship Safety and Security Class, Michael was inspired to formalize a security plan for the Mountain Harvest Worship Center. It didn’t need to be elaborate, he says, to give his congregation additional peace of mind.

“Once service starts and people are focused on what’s going on in the building, the rear doors should be secured,” Michael explains. “You have somebody who can see the entire sanctuary monitoring for anyone acting in a suspicious manner, and you designate someone to immediately grab their phone and call 911 if something happens.”

Lael Gray, executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Asheville, also underscores the importance of awareness. In the wake of a false bomb threat in February 2017, she led the JCC through a review of its procedures and, aided by a $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, made changes to improve the facility’s security arrangements.

“There’s this message from Homeland Security: ‘If you see something, say something,’” notes Gray. “We stress that our staff shouldn’t be afraid to report any suspicious package, activity or person right away, because they know what’s typical for the site.” She also emphasizes the JCC’s close relationship with local law enforcement; being familiar with the facility, she says, will enable the police to respond better to any emergency scenario that might arise.

“A lot of people are reluctant to call 911 because they aren’t sure what qualifies as an emergency and they’re afraid they’re going to be a burden,” adds Regner. “That’s absolutely not the case — we need people to report suspicious activity.”

Our brothers’ keepers

But even with 911 on speed dial, McDonald points out, faith communities must also recognize their responsibility for their own security. “Law enforcement will almost never be there until after a phone call is made,” he says. “Citizen awareness in community safety is a force multiplier for overtaxed police and sheriff’s departments.”

McDonald sees his safety and security class as a good foundation, but he also envisions the faith community organizing an independent security association to network, teach skills such as first aid and share solutions on a more regular basis. “To me, that’s a sign of a healthy community, when sheriffs and citizens come together to solve problems in common,” he observes.

Michael, meanwhile, cites another quote from Jesus (in the Gospel of St. Mark): “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To prevent someone from doing harm, he says, is to honor one’s commitments under that commandment.

“You wouldn’t let a child abuser into your house with your kids around,” Michael explains. “That doesn’t mean you can’t love that person and walk in the love of Christ and forgiveness, but you’re using wisdom to follow your responsibilities to your family and stand as a protector.”


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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One thought on “WNC faith communities, law enforcement collaborate on security

  1. C. Highland

    “McDonald agrees that faith leaders need to take a wide-angle approach to safety. “Being safe really starts with having a security plan in place that doesn’t necessarily start or stop with the worst-case scenario of an active shooter,” he explains. “It’s about how you prevent bad things from happening in the congregation that aren’t normally expected.”

    I understand the fears. Yet, I must say, as a longtime clergyperson, shouldn’t safety begin with encouraging parishioners to go to the polls and make sure there are rational, sensible firearm laws? You don’t start by “preventing” something that needs to be prevented at the legislative level to begin with.

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