The recent increase in mass shootings at places of worship has many local pastors taking more security measures including hiring armed security.
“In a perfect sense, I would love to say we’re safe in church, but given the reality in the world we live in today, some things need to be looked at so we know how to respond or react or take coverage so we can give ourselves the best chance to survive,” said the Rev. Jerry Wilson, a pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Centreville, which has armed security.
Wilson has only been pastor at the church for three years, but he said an armed security guard has been at the church for 20 years. He calls him a primary deterrent for someone who is thinking of doing something.
A national news story in the New York Times focused on church shootings and how more and more churches are hiring law enforcement officials with guns and are allowing concealed weapons inside.
In the New York Times story, the Rev. John Darsey of the Redeemer Church of Madison, Georgia, said the church hired three uniformed sheriff deputies for each Sunday service — one directing traffic, one on the parking lot and one at the door in response to the shooting at a church in South Carolina and recently at the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
At First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, 26 people were killed Nov. 5 during worship. Nine people were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston in June 2015 as they gathered for a Bible study session.
Locally, Pastor Fred Winters was shot to death in 2009 while he was giving a sermon at First Baptist Church in Maryville. Church officials declined to comment for this story.
More and more church leaders want a visible deterrent — folks with guns to protect people and property.
Wilson of St. John Missionary Baptist Church said in today’s society it behooves pastors to participate in church security training and to employ armed security.
Asked if faith alone would be enough to protect people, Wilson pointed to scripture: “Nehemiah struck out to build a wall to restore order in Israel. When this work was threatened, how did he respond? He kept the work going, but put people in place with weapons to protect them in case something happened. That is our faith. God totally gives us the vision. What we bound on earth. God bounds on earth. What we bound in heaven God bounds,” he said.
Wilson said there is no fear of God in individuals who can blatantly go into a church and do harm to people. “It’s inhumane and dangerous. That’s why we have to protect the people of the church.” Wilson said. “My heart goes out to the victims in the Texas shooting and to people everywhere because we are all affected by this kind of behavior.”
Trained, certified security officers and a response plan for an active shooter are a must for churches now, according to Wilson.
Having a visible presence on church grounds is a deterrent, Wilson said. It is also the first line of defense for those inside the building.
Ranodore Foggs, pastor of New Horizon Community Church on Summit Avenue in East St. Louis, described the gun violence occurring at churches as “alarming.”
“Once upon a time, church sanctuaries were considered sacred places, it was considered to be a spiritual sanctuary from violence and all things that disturb our peace,” said Foggs, who is also a retired Illinois State Police Trooper and the current chief of security at McKendree University.
He recalled the time when “you would be hard pressed to find someone who would curse at church.” He said he’s not surprised the gun violence has moved to churches, “but, I am disappointed.”
“We’ve got our minds on heavenly things. We’re at a disadvantage, because we are a soft target for active shooters,” said Foggs, who carries a weapon on his person at all times, even in the pulpit.
At New Horizon Church, Foggs said there is armed security.
“They are well trained about being observant,” he said. “They know if someone comes to the church wearing all black, or camouflage and big coats and it’s warm outside, or if someone appears to be wearing something underneath or maybe carrying a large bag, they need to tell someone.”
Foggs said his parishioners know that they don’t want to take anyone’s life, but they also know that “we have the ability to engage a threat. Church shootings, as we have seen, happen so quickly that by the time the police get there, it’ll probably be over. The shooters are using multiple firearms, like in the mass shootings in Las Vegas. They have hundreds of rounds of ammunition. They shoot until someone shoots them or they shoot themselves,” he said.
Foggs also discussed the shooting of Winters at First Baptist Church. “The guy shot him in the middle of service. He was in the pulpit. Everybody is expecting leaders to know what to do,” he said. “I have done contract security seminars for the New Salem Baptist District Association over the past several years and have done it for some smaller churches in the area.”
Armed and ready
A 26-year veteran of law enforcement, Foggs is allowed to carry his weapon wherever he goes. And, yes, he wears it in the pulpit.
“I know it sounds unorthodox to people ... a minister carrying a gun. It’s the society we live in now. America has not been the same since the 911 attack,” Foggs said. “Our security is a priority. We have to change the way we do business... from our airports to our streets, to our churches. There is no difference. I wish that wasn’t the case, but we have to adapt to our environment.”
The gun carriers inside New Horizon Church are “certified to carry firearms,” he said. “I allow them to carry guns. We have armed security outside and inside.”
Foggs’ message to other churches: “Be proactive. Get some training. Make sure the people you utilize on your security team are legally certified and trained to use firearms.”
Foggs said he first started using armed security at his church a couple of years ago “when thieves vandalized our HVAC system and took the copper from it.” He also recalled some church robberies in the metro-east.
“Times have changed. Before, the church was the last location in free society where we could come and worry about violence taking place. Now, it can happen anytime and anywhere,” he said.
Peggy LeCompte, a retired educator from East St. Louis District 189 and a lifelong member of Trinity United Methodist Church in East St. Louis, said she is not worried about a mass shooting at her church.
“I feel safe at my church,” she said. “The reason being is whatever is for you is for you. And we have always had men at our church who take care of the parishioners. They watch out for our cars. They greet us when we are coming to church. They walk us out to our cars. I have never feared going to church, nor have I been afraid while I was there.”
LeCompte said there is no armed security at her church. “The men at our church take care care of us,” she said. “I don’t have any fear of a mass shooting happening at any church in East St. Louis. African-American people are deeply faithful and we believe. I think that faith and belief are really important in your life if you’re really a Christian.”
Heart breaking issue
At Christ Community Church in Fairview Heights, the Rev. Shane Bishop said he never thought there would come a day where shootings happen at churches.
“It breaks my heart that churches have to spend time on this issue, but we would be negligent if we did not,” he said.
His church has a security ministry in place that is composed mostly of men and women with law enforcement or military backgrounds.
Bishop said the church averages 2,300 parishioners a week at regular worship service with upwards of 5,000 at holiday services for Easter and Christmas.
There are between 50-60 men and women on the church security team.
In response to the recent church shootings, Christ Church is hosting an active shooter seminar from 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 4. Everyone is welcome to attend. This includes members of small or large churches and individuals, Bishop said.
O’Fallon Detective Brian Gimpel said in light of the recent tragedy in Texas, Police Chief Eric Van Hook, “wanted to make sure that local churches had the most up-to-date information on ways they could better protect their places of worship and their members.”
Gimpel hosted a training session for area churches on Thursday night, which between 50 and 60 people attended.
While Bishop is greatly concerned about active shootings, he said he is more worried about weather-related matters like tornadoes that occur in the midwest and how everyone should prepare.
Of the recent mass shootings at churches, Bishop said, “It’s a reflection of our society in many ways. It’s a reflection of the violence that seems to encapsulate our society and reminds us that no one is immune from that type of violence.”
While Bishop believes “we cannot eradicate every risk,” he says, “we can lower risks by taking some commonsense precautions.”
He said he did not personally receive calls from parishioners about whether they were safe in church, Bishop was aware that a few calls had come in from concerned people.
“We’re taking the necessary precautions to eradicate any risks,” he said.
Coming up with a plan
Jimmy Meeks, owner/operator of Sheepdog Seminars, has been traveling the country for the last eight years helping church leaders put a plan of attack together in the event of an active shooter situation.
“We have now reached an all time for the number of violent deaths on church and faith-based property in a single year. We are at 108 in 2017 so far. The old record was 77 in 2015,” Meeks said.
The motto of Sheepdog Seminars is — “Building a community of leaders who are called to protect others.”
Meeks, a 35-year-veteran police officer and 44 years as minister, said his business “deals with the belief that sheep have to be protected from the wolf. The sheep for the last eight years have been the churches. We’re not safe anywhere and never have been. It’s a myth.”
Moved by emotion after spending a couple of days in Texas following the shooting, Meeks said, “He slaughtered 27 people. I’m broken hearted.”
Meeks is not surprised by all of the shootings at churches. “As a Christian I read the Bible often. It warns us violence is possible everywhere. Jesus warns us to be on guard against men. They will harm you in houses of worship.”
There is no such thing as sacred property, Meeks said. He doesn’t believe the violence is not going to stop.
He said on Aug. 23, 2009, Carol Daniel, an African-American reverend in Anadarko, Oklahoma, was attacked inside of her church. “She was stabbed multiple times, stripped of her clothing, laid in a a crucified position and her hair was set on fire. Her killer was never caught,” Meeks said. “They (the individuals who’re committing these acts of violence) have to be deranged or evil.”
“There’s no reason for any church out there to panic. But there is every reason for every church to prepare. Get a plan in place. Don’t let somebody come and slaughter your people,” Meeks said.
Want to go?
- What: Active shooter seminar
- Where: Christ Church, 339 Frank Scott Pkwy E, Fairview Heights
- When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4