Pastor Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church tweeted those words after a gunman opened fired on a group of people standing near a bus stop outside the church. According to a Chicago Sun-Times report, at the time of the shooting, about 175 people were eating tacos in a church outreach ministry meal to the homeless. One victim collapsed on the church steps and lay near death.
It is a prospect no one wants to contemplate: violence in or near a spiritual center or house of worship. Yet similar incidents are on the rise. As these stories increasingly creep into the headlines, religious leaders and other nonprofit groups are forced to deal with the penetrating question: What can be done to keep our participants safe?
The answers are not easy. On the one hand, doing nothing seems Pollyannaish at best. At worst, doing nothing may expose worshippers to the threat of real harm. On the other hand, hiring armed security personnel is often impractical, with the possible exception of off-duty police officers. Furthermore, visions of gun-toting ushers and tightly controlled, secured areas do not square well with most conceptions of spiritual centers as open and welcoming places. And unfortunately sometimes, as with the Uptown shooting, the violence is clearly beyond a church’s control.
Despite the challenges of securing religious spaces, religious groups can take steps to safeguard members in ways that are consistent with their religious purposes.
1. Identify Risks. Religious institutions should carefully evaluate the ways in which worship participants could be exposed to the possible threat of harm. This process should involve, at a minimum, leadership involvement in the following:
· Analyze facility usage to determine the days and times during which participants use the group’s property.
· Evaluate potential risks that might exist, given the facility’s location and features of the physical plant.
· Identify groups of people within the worshipping body who are at higher risk (young children and the elderly, for example).
2. Establish a Security Policy. Well-documented safety and security policies should be tailored to address the risks identified in the first step. Facilities should be improved to conform to state and local codes. Additionally, states will likely have statutory requirements governing the care of high-risk individuals. For these reasons, it is advisable to seek skilled legal counsel with experience in the preparation of such security policy documents.
Some basic security measures may include locking doors as appropriate and strategically using surveillance cameras, and having ushers and/or greeters located at open entrances. Keep in mind that religious houses of worship, while generally open to many, are still private property. Equally important to having a welcoming environment is maintaining safety against potential risks.
3. Training. It is not enough for religious institutions to adopt well-drafted policies; such organizations must regularly train staff and volunteers to execute policies according to their building’s physical design and operations. Such training should involve education with hands-on, supervised learning experiences, such as emergency drills. Ushers and greeters should also be trained on identifying problem situations and handling them successfully.
4. Implementation. Religious organizations should develop a plan to implement its security procedures. Leaders must communicate regularly with the group’s constituency to convey a policy’s substance and its rationale. The group’s board of directors or other leadership group should establish measurable thresholds according to which leadership will evaluate execution of the plan. Clear lines of accountability must be in place to effectively address deficiencies in implantation. Establishment of a security committee or other similar structure will help keep the issue front and center.
Participants might struggle to understand how a group’s strong security focus is consistent with the organization’s religious purposes. Ultimately, however, a religious groups emphasis on security should be understood as a means by which the organization cares for its people and those it seeks to reach. A spiritual group prioritizing security makes its worship center a safe and inviting place for all, members and visitors alike.