LOS ANGELES (AP) — Rev. Steven Marsh never thought he would live to see the day when his church in Laguna Woods, California — a town of 16,500 and mostly populated by retirees — raised $20,000 a month for the security would issue.
Then, on May 15, a gunman opened fire during a luncheon at Geneva Presbyterian Church, where Marsh is the senior pastor, killing one and injuring five other members of one Taiwanese community who met there. Officials said the man, motivated by political hatred of Taiwan, chained the doors of the church and hid firebombs inside before firing at the congregation of elderly church members.
Houses of worship are meant to be places of refuge, reflection and peace where strangers are welcome. But the recent string of high-profile mass shootings in the US is a reminder that violence can happen anywhere, prompting some faith leaders to tighten security.
At Geneva Presbyterian, armed security guards now stand guard every weekday and during Sunday services. The church is also adding more surveillance cameras, developing an active shooter plan, and seeking funding from the Department of Homeland Security.
“We’re not trying to militarize the church,” Marsh said. “We have prayed about this and made a decision to have armed security as an act of faith.”
Without the new security measures, Marsh predicted, the shooting would have been followed by a mass exodus of the community and schools on the Church campus.
It’s possible to create a safe and welcoming space, said Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the former spiritual director of the Beth Israel Congregation in Colleyville, Texas.
In January he and three others were taken hostage of a gun-wielding man during a Shabbat service. Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the shooter – a brave act that helped them escape safely – after a nearly 11-hour standoff. He credits the multiple rounds of active rifleman training he completed.
“If you can’t run or find a place to hide, you have to find a way to act and fight back,” Cytron-Walker said. “When we were most afraid that he was going to kill us, I saw a moment I’d been looking for all day.”
Cytron-Walker now directs Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As he works on a security plan with his new congregation, he ponders how a welcoming synagogue can increase security “because someone who wants to do harm can see they can’t go in anonymously.”
Historically, sanctuaries have been vulnerable to violent attacks — from bombings of black churches during the civil rights era to more recent shootings in the US mosques and Sikh Gurdwaras. In the USA, FBI Hate Crime Statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased by 34.8% between 2014 and 2018.
“All faiths are under attack from radicals and extremists in America,” said Alon Stivi, security adviser for synagogues, Jewish community centers and day schools. Some parishioners are reluctant to show themselves.
“They ask a lot more questions, ‘Should I come to the weekly services or just during the holidays? And if I come, should I bring my children?’”
Religious leaders who once preferred to place security in the hands of the divine are making arrangements that years ago seemed unthinkable, Stivi said. More parishioners also carry concealed handguns to services, he said.
From $25 million in 2016 to $180 million last year, the federal government has steadily increased the funding it allocates to help the faith community with security costs, Stivi said. But not all faith leaders know they can apply, he said.
Previous attacks on places of worship and other public spaces have prompted faith leaders to assess, sometimes for the first time, whether more can be done to protect their flocks.
Today, an armed policeman watches over Sunday services at Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, said Rev. Kylon Middleton, who leads the congregation. When an officer cannot be on campus for church functions, members with concealed weapons stand guard.
“It’s sad, but we are in times where we must have armed security forces to protect our people,” he said.
The church is two blocks from the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 2015, a self-proclaimed white supremacist opened fire during Bible study and killed nine believers, including the presiding pastor. Middleton said the late pastor was like a brother to him.
After the massacre, security discussions at Mt. Zion factor the style of worship into the equation, including the need for some to keep their eyes open at all times, especially when most have their eyes closed in prayer, Middleton said.
“Nobody ever thought that mass shootings would take place in churches, which are sacred sanctuaries where one can escape the world and seek spiritual refuge,” he said. “When this space has been violated, there is mental turmoil.”
After 2018 Massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Jon Leener met with the local New York City Police Department to discuss security for Base BKLYN, his home ministry, which has taken in thousands.
For years he and his wife Faith would unlock their front door just before dinner on Shabbat because of their belief in a Judaism, where no door is locked or blocked. That changed after Tree of Life – the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. Leener also installed a security camera and buzz-in system for visitors. He hired an armed guard after this year’s Texas hostage situation.
“It’s terribly unfortunate that we live in a time where we have to compromise our value of being open to the threat of violence, but that’s just the reality right now,” Leener said.
A balancing act for many. Marsh said the shooting at his church happened because members of the Taiwanese community welcomed the shooter — a person they didn’t know.
“The church must welcome all people and we must not lose that,” he said.
“Are there any ways an active shooter could come back to our campus? Yes. But we must be ready for this to happen again. Otherwise we would all have to go through metal detectors. It would no longer be a church.”
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