Belleville Police Chief William Clay admitted that it seemed a bit odd to have to hold a meeting Monday to advise local church leaders on what they could do to protect their congregations from an attack.
But, unfortunately, Clay told the crowd of about 50 church leaders assembled at Grace Church in Fairview Heights, that's no longer the world we live in.
"Once upon a time there used to be deference at churches and other traditional institutions," Clay said. "That's not there anymore. That's just the way it is in the United States these days, so we have to deal with it.
"We wouldn't have even thought about that 10 or 15 years ago," Clay said of church attacks. "When I was a kid you'd think God would strike you down. But if they'll walk into a kindergarten class and shoot 20 kids, they'll rob your church."
In recent years the metro-east has seen Maryville church pastor Fred Winters murdered in front of his congregation by a man with no ties to the church who walked in to a service and shot him, as well as an armed robbery at an East St. Louis church during services.
Olivia Johnson, security director at Towerview Baptist Church in Shiloh, said her congregation has learned that safety's important.
"We've had a couple of incidents recently where emotionally disturbed people came to our church," Johnson said. "It's important to have a plan to know what to do in case something like that comes up."
Johnson said she attended the meeting because she's eager for any sort of tip that can help keep her church's congregation safe.
Maryville Police Chief Richard Schardan told people at the meeting that there are several things church leaders can do to protect their members from church violence.
Schardan said church leaders need to:
*Meet regularly with police and let them know about any issues they have with people, regardless of whether they are members of the congregations.
* Work with law enforcement officers who attend the church and place them strategically in the audience where they could be in a position to react in case of an attack or emergency.
* Place people at the entrances to the church to head off any unstable or violent people before they can get to the congregation or church leadership.
* Have an escape plan in place. Church members need to know how to get out of the building if they can -- or where to hide if they can't get out.
* Delay an attacker. At church and school shootings, one person is shot every seven seconds. Anything that can be done to slow down the shooter until help arrives can save lives
* Most importantly, churches need to have a designated person to dial 9-1-1 in case of an emergency to make sure help is on the way -- and as soon as possible.
"Many of these sorts of attacks are preventable," Schardan told the audience. "In many cases, the information is out there and people need to share it. People need to talk to each other when they hear things, and take action to make sure they're ready for it."
Grace Church Executive Pastor Phil Silsby said the most important thing people need to do to keep their churches safe is to be vigilant.
"We need to be alert," Silsby said. "If you let your guard down, that's probably when things are going to happen."
In addition to the church leaders, representatives from several metro-east police departments were in attendance at the meeting, including the Belleville, Bethalto, Edwardsville, Granite City, Maryville, New Baden and Troy departments.