By Craig Cable
Once again, a mass shooting at a house of worship has reignited a nationwide conversation on mental illness, hate, and gun control. The Tree of Life, a synagogue located in Pittsburgh, was the tragic location of one of the deadliest attacks against the Jewish community in American history.
On Saturday, October 27, 2018, Robert D. Bowers walked into the Tree of Life and indiscriminately opened fire on worshippers. The killing spree left 11 dead and six injured—including four responding police officers. Comments the killer allegedly made suggest the attack was motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs.
According to a spokesperson at the Tree of Life synagogue, a police presence could be expected on High Holidays, but on ordinary Saturdays the doors stayed open and anyone could walk in.
The tragic events in Pittsburgh weren’t the only hate-motivated crime that week. Just days before the attack on the synagogue, gunman Gregory Alan Bush walked into a Kroger grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, and senselessly gunned down an African-American man and a woman based solely on their skin color.
While the loss of these two individuals is both tragic and senseless, the loss of life could have been much greater. Just minutes before the shooter walked into the grocery store, a more sinister plot may have been foiled. Surveillance cameras and eyewitnesses saw Bush attempting to enter the front doors of the First Baptist Church, a predominately black church in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. According to news reports, a church member in the parking lot grew alarmed when she saw him aggressively pulling on the front doors. “There were 70 people here at our weekly meeting service just an hour before he came by,” said Billy Williams, a church administrator at church that day. “I’m just thankful that all of our doors and security was in place.”
While there’s no way to know for sure, it seems that First Baptist Church in Jeffersontown had a different outcome based on one simple yet life-altering decision: to lock the doors.
As someone who’s dedicated to resourcing and training church security teams around the country, I’ve seen church leaders adopt one of two mindsets in response to violent attacks. The first is “if it happens…,” and the second is “when it happens.…”
Though subtle, the difference between the two mindsets is huge. Having an “if” mindset is based on a flawed premise that your church is somehow exempt from being the target of violence or other safety risks such as domestic violence, medical emergencies, or sexual abuse. Many church leaders still find themselves believing “it won’t happen here,” and put their people at unnecessary risk by playing the odds.
In contrast, having a “when” mindset changes your attitude and intentionality. It also increases the urgency to evaluate your vulnerabilities and implement necessary changes to keep your church safe.
Recent mass church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, Antioch, Tennessee, Sutherland Springs, Texas, and now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have erased any sense of naiveté, and churches can no longer plead ignorance on the need to have safety and security policies in place.
To address these concerns, I’ve been working on training solutions for church safety and security. Whether your church is just starting the process of implementing a church safety plan or if you have an existing safety team and are looking for ways to improve your training, Group offers the Shepherd’s Watch® Safe and Secure Church: The Ministry Approach training kit. This comprehensive kit covers topics like determining your church’s unique risk and liability, developing a safety and security mindset, learning to verbally de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, and responding to an active shooter. To learn more visit: Group.com/security.
Group also offers regional training opportunities for your entire security team. To find a training location near you, visit: Group.com/Securitytraining.