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Connecticut State Police officers at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church. Someone phoned a threat to the church on the Sunday following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 in Newtown, Conn. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Churches under the gun

Shootings in the sanctuary. Pistols in the pulpit. The culture of violence is infiltrating U.S. places of worship.

By Anne Bokma

Monsignor Robert Weiss has had an aversion to guns ever since his best friend accidentally shot and killed himself in Grade 6. And yet his St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown, Conn., has an 18-member security force made up of trained parishioners armed with pistols while they patrol the pews and church property.

Weiss, known in Newtown as Father Bob, was the first local faith leader on the scene at the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings four years ago when 20-year-old Adam Lanza broke into the school and killed 20 Grade 1 students and six adults before shooting himself. Weiss stood with shaken parents as they waited to find out if their children had survived. “All I could do was be a presence for them,” he says during an interview in his parish office. Then he begins to cry. “It’s hard. You go back and you remember who was there; you remember their faces.” In the week after Sandy Hook, Weiss officiated funeral services for eight of the slain children.

That wasn’t the end of the agony. Two days after the shooting, during a noon-hour mass at St. Rose of Lima, a threat was phoned into the church. “I’m Adam’s friend, and I’m coming to finish what he started,” the caller warned. Police were alerted and Weiss stopped the service. Five hundred parishioners evacuated the building while a SWAT team scoured the property before declaring it safe. In the days that followed, police examined every package that came to the church and its adjacent Catholic elementary school, often using bomb-sniffing dogs. “They even checked the floral tributes being sent to the funerals to make sure they didn’t contain any incendiary devices,” says Weiss.

Today, the school is fitted with bulletproof glass. Weiss and all the church staff have an app on their cell phones to alert police to the presence of an active shooter. Four armed parishioners are on security duty at any church event where children are present.

Welcome to churchgoing, U.S.A., in the age of the gun. All too conscious of horrors like Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, San Bernardino and Aurora — as well as their reputation as “soft” or unprotected targets — more and more churches are arming themselves. Precious few are addressing the systemic issues behind the thousands of gun murders (13,300 in 2015) in the United States each year.

The problem of gun violence in churches exploded in the headlines last summer when nine people were shot dead by a white supremacist during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The incident raised disturbing echoes of attacks on churches during the civil rights movements in the 1960s, including the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four girls.

Gun deaths in religious settings have been on the rise since 1980, when Alvin Lee King, a former high school teacher, burst into First Baptist Church in Daingerfield, Texas, with a semi-automatic AR-15, an M1 carbine and two revolvers, declaring “This is war!” He killed five people and wounded 10 because he was angry that church members would not appear as character witnesses at his rape trial. In 1999, a gunman murdered seven people, including four teenagers, at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2007, a gunman killed two people at the New

Life megachurch in Colorado Springs, Colo., before being shot by a worshipper doubling as a security guard. The same year, a man shot and killed a minister and two church elders during a service at First Congregational Church in Neosho, Mo. In 2008, a man strode into Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., pulled a gun out of a guitar case and shot two people, wounding seven others. (He later told police liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.) In 2012, a white supremacist shot six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before killing himself.

According to church security expert Carl Chinn, between 1999 and 2015 there have been 1,200 deadly-force incidents and 364 homicides in U.S. places of worship, or about one incident for every 300 churches. In a country with 350,000 places of worship, that might seem not seem like much, but it’s enough to send a shiver through a growing number of them.

Chinn, who lives near Colorado Springs, Colo., got into the church security business after being held hostage by a gunman in 1996 while working for an evangelical organization. He was also involved in the attempt to stop the shooter at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, which he attends. His book, Evil Invades Sanctuary: The Case for Security in Faith-Based Organizations is beloved among pro-gun churches.

Chinn says churches have a responsibility to develop measures that will keep their congregations safe. The very least they should do, he says, is have a team of trained parishioners who double as volunteer security guards. These should be “people who are willing to run toward the sound of gunfire, people who have protection in their DNA,” such as law enforcement and medical professionals.  

Chuck Chadwick, president of the Dallas-based National Organization of Church Safety and Security, says his group has helped thousands of churches, including offering firearms training to church security volunteers. He says most of his clients are evangelical Christians, although some liberal congregations have also sought him out. (Asked if he would offer training to mosques, which have frequently been the targets of vandals and arsonists, he hesitates before responding, “I don’t know.”)

The church security movement has allies in Washington. After 9/11, Congress agreed to provide millions of dollars in grants to Jewish groups for measures such as reinforced doors, blast-proof windows, surveillance cameras, gates and fencing. Three years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a 32-page Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship, which recommends churches develop specific plans to respond to the potential threat of violence, and to train parishioners to recognize the sound of danger and take necessary action. It also advises on how to deal with an active shooter (run or hide, and, if that’s not possible, use aggressive force, including throwing chairs or fire extinguishers). On a FEMA webinar, Katherine Schweit of the FBI suggests ways to distract shooters: “You can fight by everyone throwing a Bible at them — and I mean that in a very respectful way because I am a Bible-fearing person.”

Some U.S. houses of worship are taking security to the extreme. The “Holy Ghost pat-down,” for example: greeters frisk strangers suspected of bringing weapons into church by ostensibly giving them a hug; or banning backpacks and strollers in the sanctuary since they could be hiding something lethal. Firearms training for ministers is also on the rise. “Lots of ministers are getting trained,” says Chuck Chadwick. Asked what kind of gun he recommends for a minister, he says with a laugh: “We don’t advocate itty bitty guns. You wouldn’t want to go any smaller than a nine millimetre.”

Several years ago, Kentucky pastor Ken Pagano, who leads an Assemblies of God congregation in Louisville, made headlines when he held an “open carry celebration” in his church, inviting parishioners to wear their guns into the sanctuary to give thanks for the right to bear arms. In an interview with Time magazine last year, Brian Ulch, associate pastor at Trinity Lighthouse Church in Denison, Texas, said he carries a Glock in the pulpit because, “we feel like we owe it to our congregation to engage any type of threat.” The National Rifle Association (NRA) magazine, America’s 1st Freedom, carried a glowing editorial last fall praising Brenda Stevenson, pastor at New Outreach Christian Centre in North Charlotte, N.C., for purchasing a gun she plans to keep in the pulpit. The magazine quoted Stevenson as saying, “We know God is with us — we just want to get those two new members.” The members she’s referring to? Smith and Wesson.

As if the flames weren’t hot enough already, high-profile religious leaders are helping to fan them even further. Last year, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the Christian Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., urged his students to enrol in the school’s free concealed carry course so they could bring their weapons on campus. “If more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them,” he said, referring to last year’s San Bernardino, Calif., shooting when 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack.

Since January, Texas has allowed worshippers to openly carry weapons in houses of worship. The only way to stop firearms from entering the premises is to post signs — which regulations state must appear in contrasting colours with block letters at least one inch in height — outside all entrances. A total of four signs are required: one prohibiting open carry, one prohibiting concealed carry, and one each in English and Spanish.

Not all churches buy into the militant approach to curbing violence in places of worship. “The first thing I want people to see at church is a cross or something holy, not something scary,” says Rev. Anna Humble, conference minister for United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations in Texas. Humble says most UCC congregations in the state are opting to post signs rather than welcome firearms.

The UCC has a long history of advocating for gun control (see sidebar, below). Church officials say more guns are not the solution to gun violence. “Why are we not investing in conflict resolution and directing resources to keeping violent situations from happening in the first place — and, if conflict happens, learning how to keep it from escalating?” asks Sandy Sorensen, director of the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries office in Washington, D.C. “These are more cost-effective initiatives and would make more of a difference than adding armed security guards.”

Some churches focus on welcoming rather than preparing for potential warfare. A few weeks after the killings at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, the denomination’s head office took out a $130,000 full page ad in the New York Times that read: “We will meet hatred with love. We will continue to work for justice. Our hearts and the doors of our . . . congregations nationwide remain open. Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. We invite you to stand with us.”

The church’s minister, Rev. Chris Buice, says it’s important to “lead by faith, not fear,” and points out that “church safety policies are no substitute for good public policy,” citing the example of Canada as a country with gun control laws that make it much safer than the United States. Even so, his church now has a greeter who doubles as a security guard, all staff have been trained on how to respond to emergencies, new lights have been installed in the parking lot and detailed evacuation routes have been posted throughout the building.

Rev. Matthew Crebbin of Newtown Congregational United Church of Christ became an active gun control proponent after counselling some of the Sandy Hook families whose children died in the massacre. Speaking from his church in Newtown, he echoes a sentiment shared widely in liberal circles: “We are replacing the second commandment [thou shalt not worship false idols] with the Second Amendment — the gun has become a false idol, one that promises safety, but more often delivers grief.”

Still, there’s no denying that churches are inherently vulnerable. They are open at predictable times, contain large groups in a concentrated area, with most people sitting with their backs to the doors. They also attract people who are experiencing difficulties such as divorce, job loss or mental illness. Attackers motivated by hatred of people of a certain colour or creed know they can find many of those people gathered under one roof in a house of worship.

It’s horrific to think that people fall victim to violence in places where they should find peace. Yet surely the solution isn’t more guns. Sandy Sorensen says the real challenge is to effect a wholesale cultural shift. America learned to abhor slavery; it can get past its obsession with guns too, she says.

It’s an issue that begs for action from religious groups. “Can you honestly wake up as a person of faith each morning,” she asks, “and accept that it’s normal that there is going to be a headline about another shooting? The answer is no.”

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer.
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