As leaders of faith institutions across the nation offered prayer and condolences following Sunday’s massacre at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, faith leaders in San Antonio were concerned not just for the spiritual needs of their flocks, but for their physical safety.
“We feel obligated to make sure people can encounter God when they come to our campus,” said Pastor Scott Kindig, chief of staff at Community Bible Church (CBC), which draws more than 11,000 Sunday worshipers to San Antonio’s far Northside.
“We feel like, next to that, is making sure everyone can have a safe experience coming off and on campus. We believe the work we do in this city is outside our walls, not inside, but we understand our gatherings are a place to come together so we can go out and make a difference. If we don’t do it in a secure way, we can’t execute our ministry out in the community.”
Although no violent incidents have occurred at the church, security personnel have had to intervene when an estranged couple attempted to pick up children from the child care center, or when someone has come to the church visibly distraught.
Kindig said Monday that CBC has a “pretty intensive security plan” in place to protect churchgoers, with as many as 15 uniformed police officers in the parking lot and several plainclothes officers in and around the church buildings. The church also conducts video surveillance, watching as people come and go from the church’s four entrances. Security is provided by certified law enforcement officers, both employed by CBC and contracted through security agencies.
This year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law SB 2065, which allows churches to arm members of their own congregation rather than hire private security firms or licensed officers. Churches can form security teams with members who are legally allowed to carry a gun, but those people cannot wear a uniform or badge portraying themselves as “security.”
Stockdale Church of Christ Senior Minister Kenneth Clapp serves a congregation of about 175 people in a small town seven miles southeast of Sutherland Springs. Since Sunday, he has been doing a lot of listening to grieving members of his church. But he’s also having conversations about security with leaders in the church – talks that were only theoretical until Sunday.
“There was never a real immediacy to it,” Clapp said. “So we actually have a meeting [Monday night]. Theory aside, we have to get practical. How do we give the congregation a sense of security while they’re here? There can never be a guarantee. But when someone bad wants to do a bad thing, the idea is to make it harder.”
The Stockdale church is evaluating automatic door locks, coordinating with church members who have security backgrounds, and enlisting Agape Tactical, a Tennessee company that specializes in church security, to provide training. But, Clapp said, on an operating budget of only about $200,000 a year, cost versus benefit is a major issue.
Some churchgoers aren’t relying solely on outside protections. Lee Marshall, 30, attends Oak Hills Church with his wife. After a recent night of fellowship at the large church, they wondered about security and decided to sign up for a license-to-carry (LTC) class so they could legally carry handguns.
“Even though our church usually has a law enforcement officer on site during service, I feel it is my duty as a husband, soon-to-be father, and Texan to protect my family,” Marshall said. “That is why I applied for a Texas LTC and why, wherever legal, I will be concealed-carrying a handgun.”
In downtown San Antonio, hundreds of faithful attend mass on Sundays at San Fernando Cathedral, including tourists. The church relies on volunteer ushers to maintain security as well as an ever-present San Antonio Police Department bike patrol.
Father Victor Valdez, San Fernando’s rector, met with ushers Sunday evening to discuss safety for parishioners at the church. “I told them the biggest thing is we have to be vigilant and observant, and if you see anything that doesn’t look right, to be in communication with one another about it,” Valdez said.
“One advantage we have is the bike patrol. If a situation arises, we call them right away and they help us. [But] we have to be vigilant ourselves. And that connects with scripture. Christ says to be vigilant.”
Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and more than 150 priests of the Archdiocese of San Antonio who gathered at San Fernando Cathedral on Monday evening for the opening Mass of the Presbyteral Convocation prayed for the victims of Sunday’s shooting. Inside the cathedral is a small altar with candles for those killed and wounded.
At Temple Beth-El, Senior Rabbi Mara Nathan said the synagogue always has a police officer on site during worship services and religious school. “Most synagogues around the country and the world have varying levels of security, but this is not new,” Nathan said. “Particularly in Europe and large urban areas in the U.S., it’s a longstanding practice.”
Even when Nathan hosts Sukkot, a fall harvest celebration, at her home, she hires security because the event is advertised publicly on Facebook.
“Personally, I haven’t ever felt unsafe, but we do take the safety of our congregants and the security of our building very seriously,” she said. “With the national rise in anti-Semitic activity and the prevalence of large-scale gun violence that seems to be growing, I am grateful that we already have thorough security protocols in place.”
At the Muslim Children’s Education and Civic Center (MCECC), one of two mosques where about one-third of the city’s 30,000 Muslims worship, security measures follow guidelines provided by the FBI as well as SAPD.
“They gave us an idea of our weak spots and what to watch out for, and they keep in touch with us so we’re aware of best practices and if there are any threats,” said MCECC spokesman Sakib Shaikh. During Friday prayers, the mosque has four on-site security officers who are with the San Antonio Park Police.
MCECC and the Muslim and Interfaith Communities of San Antonio also organized a prayer vigil for Monday evening at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.
In a 2013 article in the Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jim Welch, director of property and casualty at GuideStone Financial Resources, recommended that both large and small churches make it a priority to form security ministry teams made up of active and retired law enforcement officers and trained laypeople. They should assess risks and establish a plan to deal with threats.
Large churches, like Gateway Church in Dallas, have the resources to prepare for and respond to violence. On its website, the 39,000-member megachurch states that it will not allow the open carry of handguns on any of its four campuses. Its Safety Services Volunteer Ministry consists of certified noncommissioned security officers and active, off-duty police officers who are unarmed.
Sunday’s tragedy in the tiny church in Sutherland Springs is one of five fatal shootings in recent years at U.S. churches of varying sizes and denominations. Next month marks the 10th anniversary of a church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that took the lives of five people.
“The New Life Church shooting is never talked about. You mostly hear about Littleton and the theater shooting,” said Jim Anderson, a member of the safety ministry at the evangelical megachurch in Colorado Springs where a shooter killed two people there, plus three others in Denver, in 2007.
“The church had already gotten a call that some guy shot some people in Denver and they didn’t know where he was. They already had a security team in place. Unfortunately, these two high school girls and their dad pulled up, and he shot all three of them.”
Soon after, the pastor invited the shooter’s parents and one of the victim’s parents to meet. The church then hosted a healing service. “It was all about forgiveness,” Anderson said. “We’re not going to hold onto this, we’re going to move forward. And it just shows the power churches have over institutions in this way.”
Clapp agreed that legislation and security systems ultimately won’t make what happened in Sutherland Springs stop occurring.
“The answer is one that Christianity has been offering a long time – and that’s to love one another,” he said. “… If we could ever actually just do that, then a lot of this would disappear.”
Ann Helmke, the City of San Antonio’s community faith-based liaison and a Lutheran minister who works with the San Antonio Peace Center, said it makes her sad to visit a church where security is as tight as the airport.
“It should be a safe place, a sanctuary to anybody who goes in. You should feel safe,” she said. “The other part of equation is being involved in world where service isn’t always safe.”