For churches, balancing safety and hospitality is a work in progress
Some churches are choosing security over sanctuary in response to mass shootings.
Legend has it that Abraham, the father of many faiths, opened his tent to the north, south, east, and west to welcome sojourners from every walk of life. Called away from the security of his own tribe to trek—exposed—through the desert, Abraham depended on the hospitality of strangers. In receiving a guest’s welcome, he cultivated the art of a capable host. The spiritual practice of hospitality remains essential to today’s communities of faith in an era of fracture, alienation, and decline.
Yet American congregations wonder: Is it safe? With mass shooting incidents on the rise, communities of faith grapple to balance congregational security with the scriptural call to hospitality.
First Congregational Church sits a few blocks from downtown in Westfield, New Jersey, a leafy suburb 25 miles west of New York City. Associate pastor Rev. Joy Mounts, originally from Newtown, Connecticut, jokes that there was a time when everyone in town seemed to have a key to the building. A community hub also home to the Girl Scouts, musical recitals, a food pantry, and a nursery school, the building bustles as much during the week as it does on a Sunday morning. Key copies distributed to those in charge of various activities proved difficult to track down—some were returned, some were kept for ongoing use, and a few may have been lost in the mix.
When the church was vandalized and evidence suggested someone might have been sleeping overnight in the building, leadership contacted the police, who encouraged them to install security cameras. Then the world began to change. Mass shootings spread like a virus from schools and movie theaters to sanctuaries. Nine parishioners (including the beloved pastor) were murdered in Charleston, South Carolina at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a racist hate crime. First Congregational Church developed new security protocols to increase safety for all who used the building, a timely decision, as shortly thereafter an antisemitic incident targeted a local Jewish congregation that meets in the church to mark their high holy days.
From the outset, Mounts says, “We didn’t want to be a fortress. We are a welcoming church, and we don’t want that to change.” The leadership arranged a walk-through with officials from both the police and fire departments. They leveraged a grant from the Department of Homeland Security available to houses of worship that pairs a three-hour training with specific recommendations. The church leadership instituted the following changes:
- Outdoor cameras to cover the parking lot and perimeter of the building
- Inside cameras in most locations
- Automatic locks on the back doors
- An intercom system
- A keypad for the door used during evening activities
- Walkie-talkies to communicate between the sanctuary and classrooms
- Panic buttons in the sanctuary, office, and school that summon the police
- An annual fire drill
- Lockdown training with the local police department for Sunday School teachers
- A brochure to explain procedures to the congregation
- A security team composed of nurses, EMTs, and trained deacons
- Installation of a defibrillator in the church narthex
- An appointment system for food pantry clients rather than walk-ins
- New signage to instruct visitors where to enter
- Proactive greeting of newcomers
Decisions were also made about what the church would not do: performing active shooter drills with children and youth, installing cameras in the holy spaces of the sanctuary and memorial garden, intentionally carrying firearms in the church, or locking doors during worship. “That’s not who we are,” says Mounts.
Guns in church
Other communities of faith, however, opt to ensure someone carries a gun every Sunday and is prepared for an active shooter situation. Strategos International quotes Proverbs 22:3—“A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions”—on its homepage, where it advertises itself as the “best church security and intruder response training in the country.”
Although Strategos notes that the militarization of churches is not necessary to provide a secure environment, a four-hour training on handling firearms and multiday trainings for the tactical use of a pistol or taser for “Church Protectors” also feature on the website, alongside “Church Security Boot Camp.” Strategos’ team consists of many white men with law enforcement or military backgrounds.
The National Christian Protectors Conference’s introductory video on Strategos’ website opens with an image of a billowing flag fading to what appears to be a gun and badge on an altar. The video includes individuals holding orange rubber training guns. The conference combines law enforcement officers, military service members, private security, and church security teams. Together they worship, hear from keynote speakers, and attend up to 10 tactical training sessions. The international business claims to have already trained more than 150,000 people of faith including, according to a testimonial on its website, members of the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio.
Does the presence of guns truly make congregations safer? According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly one third of adults in the United States own a firearm, the majority of whom bought it for protection. Yet people have defended themselves with a gun in fewer than 1 percent of violent crimes, according to researchers from Harvard University. Adrenaline impairs motor function, even for trained professionals. A 2006 study published in Police Quarterly, for example, found that among New York City police officers, only 1 in 5 could hit a target if they were being fired upon.
Matt Gray, a psychologist at the University of Wyoming who studies moral injury, describes murder as the “ultimate human taboo.” A lifetime of moral training deems killing, even in cases of self-defense, as something at odds with subconscious human morality.
While gun owners may feel safer when their gun is present, according to Jonathan Metzl, director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, data show that owning a gun actually places one at greater risk. He points out that suicide accounts for two thirds of all gun deaths. “We need more research before we start pushing guns into all these public places without any evidence that this is effective, because otherwise we are just working from myths and fantasies,” he says.
Mental health expertise
The Rev. Dr. Sherry Molock, pastor and associate professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, agrees that more guns are not the answer to protecting churches. A suicide expert, she believes danger increases exponentially when a gun is present in church buildings. While her congregation includes law enforcement officers and detectives, Molock’s background in mental health informs her leadership. Her African American congregation has received hate mail citing both female pastoral leadership (Molock serves as a coequal founding pastor at Beloved Community Church in Accokeek, Maryland alongside her husband) and their welcome of all people regardless of sexual or gender identity.
A number of people experiencing homelessness frequent Beloved Community Church’s worship or choir rehearsal, some of whom may struggle with mental illness. “We separate that from church security, because most people with mental health issues are not dangerous,” Molock says. Instead, she trains members of the church to assess, diffuse, and de-escalate these challenges, approaching individuals kindly to welcome them and inquire how the church can help. She cites multiple instances in which individuals have been provided resources, such as clothing or a plate of food, all while worship was underway. “We don’t lock the church during service, and we probably never will,” she says.
At the same time, the Beloved Community Church congregation proactively discusses threatening hate mail and security issues, then responds with clear protocol. A female law enforcement officer taught a Sunday School class on safety. Everyone is encouraged to call the police should an emergency situation arise (the members tend toward tech savvy, most accessing their phones in church to check in on social media and pull up scripture).
Molock says she recommends the following: “Go to your local police department for training, ensure basement doors or multiple entrances are locked, invite the fire department to assess your building’s safety, and create a basic safety plan, including trained first responders.”
Molock is both clear and candid about how her theology and mental health expertise inform her approach to security. “If it’s my time to go, then it is. I don’t want to minimize safety issues, but the probability is so miniscule,” she says, noting security is a greater challenge in the university classroom where she teaches. She promotes better access to mental health care, saying, “Healthy people get help so they can be healthier.”
Yet the shared theology of the community matters most. “We are here to share God’s love, and we cannot do that in a space that is closed, restrictive, or scared,” she says. Instead, the sanctuary of Beloved Community Church offers just that—a refuge from the storms of life and a place where members learn how to love even those who might not love them.
Divesting from police
In 2018 the faith arm of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) launched a new campaign aimed at organizing within congregations or faith institutions to invest in practices that increase safety without relying on police. Such alternatives include mental health first aid, self-defense, de-escalation trainings, community defense zones, and restorative justice circles. Citing the history of policing, the disproportionate impact of excessive use of force on people of color, and the mass incarceration of black Americans, the Community Safety for All campaign calls upon white people of faith in particular to “practice the world we wish to see.” The campaign asks such questions as: What might community safety look like without relying on policing?
The campaign’s ultimate goal is to empower religious institutions and communities of faith (especially those that are predominantly white) to fully divest from the policing system, even in situations where violence breaks out. To begin, they support individual and small working groups in undertaking an historical and social analysis of policing. Next, they assist communities and institutions of faith in reducing their reliance on dialing 911.
First Congregational United Church of Oakland, California became one of the first churches to pledge to stop calling law enforcement as part of this campaign. The community is organizing trainings open to the wider community and responding to other churches reaching out to join them in their divestment from policing. Lay leader Nichola Torbett notes that the disproportionate impact of policing on people of color is not going to be solved by retraining the police. “We have to retrain ourselves,” she says.
The Rev. Dr. Aaron Wade, founding pastor of the Community Church of Washington, D.C., claims his relationships with local police and even the FBI have proven invaluable. As an African American pastor having been in a public same-gender-loving marriage, Wade receives death threats, hate mail, and ominous phone calls. A few years ago an explosive device was located on the church grounds, resulting in the shutdown of a three-block radius around the building as a bomb squad intervened to diffuse the danger.
While some communities might experience decline after such incidents, worship attendance has not been negatively impacted, says Wade. “Everyday life for our members can be a challenge. Worship is the time to start the process toward healing and to motivate and help folk get through the week. People who have had to endure struggle and hardship understand that we must move forward and trust in a power that is bigger than us, a power that has sustained us, and that’s God,” he says.
Drawing upon the legacy of enslaved Africans and the spiritual heritage of the enslaved children of Israel, Wade couples the community’s determination to move forward with vigilance. Leadership sweeps the church and created an evacuation plan. A team accompanies Wade and other clergy team members when they travel to minister. Membership includes off-duty law enforcement officers. However, people do not bring weapons to church.
“I commend congregations that are predominantly white trying to ensure African Americans are not targeted based on skin tone,” Wade says. “More proactive may be to sit down with law enforcement forums, inviting law enforcement to the table for conversations about racial justice. Help, inform, educate, sensitize. I think that’s a better step. Relationship formation is key to a healthy community. We can hold each other accountable.”
Another community hub, Congregation Ner Shalom, serves the Jewish community of Prince William County in northern Virginia. Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein notes the building serves as a worship center as well as a space for cultural learning. “Judaism is a culture of survival,” she says. “Despite all attempts to end or change us, we are still here thousands of years later. We teach our children that we are not alone in facing oppression, so we must work together with others to realize tikkun olam, repair of the world.”
Such intergenerational teachings bolster Goldstein’s resilience in the face of recent events. In 2019 a woman arrived at the synagogue as Shabbat preparations were taking place and asked to speak to the rabbi. The woman handed Goldstein a plastic bag with a note reading, “To a very special rabbi.” Inside she found two copies of the New Testament, with texts highlighting damnation, paired with flyers urging repentance. Then, on Yom Kippur, the busiest high holy day in the Jewish calendar, an anonymous caller asked about baptisms, proclaiming “Jesus is the Messiah. I’ll pray you get saved.” Within a week, Goldstein received messages that her personal information was being shared on a private Nazi Facebook page. She immediately contacted the police.
Congregation Ner Shalom utilized a grant to install lights and cameras in the parking lot and around the building’s exterior. The congregation has put in place an emergency lockdown plan, practiced an active shooter drill, and activated a subtle security team of watchful members. The Prince William County police department patrols on high holy days. Goldstein hopes all of this will be enough. “Visible allyship,” she says, “especially from white Christian neighbors who call out antisemitism and Islamophobia when they see it,” makes the whole community safer.
“Show up at interfaith events, actions, or days of learning. Speak up on social media. Really talk to each other,” Goldstein says. These actions contribute directly to her sense of safety in the community and the well-being of Jewish congregations.
A faith that endures
In the wake of the racist terrorism visited upon Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a community still in mourning gathered for worship one warm summer Sunday in 2015. At an altar call early in the service, many came forward to kneel and pray. Some at the altar began to weep—the shoulder-shaking, soul-wrenching sobbing that erupts from someone who has known terrible tragedy. As they wept, others comforted them. One young woman’s grief was met by two members cooling her down with church fans as a gloved usher brought her bottled water. She was blessed by the pastor, hugged by friends, and helped to her feet. A little girl stood beside her, watching.
Not long after, the choir began to sing—at first slow and deliberate, but when the soloist finally let loose, her death-defying voice rang out in every corner of the sanctuary. She sang her truth, faith, and deep joy in getting up that morning. Soon women and men stood, swaying, with hands raised, faces lifted, and hearts unfurled.
The spiritual, emotional, mental, and physiological benefits of this kind of worship were made real in the heat of Mother Emanuel’s sanctuary. Full-bodied, soulful worship keeps some alive to face another day. At Mother Emanuel, they gave thanks that their beds had not become their cooling boards. They gave thanks to be at worship, to have another day to live and love. They gave thanks, as if joyful gratitude is the other side of grief. In the wake of so much death, they awakened to life.
Meanwhile, the children watched and listened. They learned songs of praise, mingling tears of grief and gratitude. They heard the fervent prayers emanate from the altar, free of shame in crying out to God. They saw someone catch the Spirit and go down in a blaze of glory, and others who came quickly to their side—not to stop the spiritual experience, but to fan an overheated body, to lift the heavy shoulders of someone brought to their knees by life’s hardships.
The children witnessed the humble confidence that comes from knowing who you are and whose you are. They heard prayers that were such feats of faithfulness and hospitality that they seemed impossible, if not for God’s grace. They saw the peace that passes understanding written on the faces of elders. This is how the next generation of the faithful learn a spiritual resilience that endures.
Image: Shutterstock cc via P Maxwell Photography