Faithful weigh locked doors versus open arms after shootings

Safety while attending services is something many area churchgoers have taken for granted — at least until the Nov. 5 Texas church shooting.

That massacre, coupled with a 2015 shooting in a mostly African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, has brought the issue of safety into the conversation among congregants and church leaders.

It’s an uncomfortable conversation, local leaders said, as the main tenet behind most religions is being welcoming and helping those in need.

“Welcoming the stranger is one of our holy obligations,” said Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.

In years long past, houses of worship were open 24/7. Churches were seen as a sanctuary, a respite from the world.

That openness is not the case today.

At Agudath Achim Synagogue, the doors are locked unless a service is taking place. There are also security cameras on the doors at both the sanctuary and office.

But those security measures aren’t because of recent shootings or threats, Wallen said, but rather a result of a changing world.

“Years ago, they weren’t locked,” Wallen said. “But in recent years, all churches that I’m aware of have locks on the front doors. Sanctuary doors are locked. People just can’t go wandering in.”

Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said: “I think that many people nostalgically remember the days when church doors were always unlocked and the faithful could come and go throughout the day to pray. Sadly, times have changed. For security reasons, most of our parishes are no longer able to leave the doors unlocked during the day when Masses are not scheduled and priests or staff are not present.”

Though she doesn’t like it, the Rev. Marlys Hershberger, pastor of the Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren, said her church’s doors are also locked when there are no services.

“The Church of the Brethren is historically a peace church,” she said.

It seems, however, people today don’t hold the same regard for places of worship as they did in the past.

“I’m torn” over the decision to lock a church or leave the doors open, Hershberger said, noting the thought, at least among Church of the Brethren, was that if someone steals something, they must need it more.

During a recent board meeting, Hershberger said the subject of church shootings came up.

“A couple of people raised a concern,” she said. “I think where we are at right now, we are actively thoughtful about the building and what we can be doing to be ready to respond to any difficulty or tragedy.”

Fear at services

“I’ve not experienced anybody voicing fear” for their safety while at church, said Pastor Gary Dull of the Faith Baptist Church of Altoona.

But that might be because of the church’s security measures.

“At our church, we have a security team,” Dull said. “They get training consistently, and they actively watch over the congregation when we are in the church during services.”

Seven members of the church carry concealed weapons, and while regular attendees would know who they are, Dull said visitors don’t.

“You can’t tell by looking” who is carrying a weapon, he said.

The doors are always locked at Faith Baptist, Dull said, even during services.

“We did that even before these shootings have taken place,” he said. “You never know who could walk in and hide. Then after people leave, they could do something.”

Years ago, before the doors were locked, a man came into the office area and scared the staff. While he didn’t do anything, it was decided the office doors should be locked.

The security team of seven men — all volunteers — watch over the parking lots and the doors, and once the service begins, lock the doors, though someone is stationed to let latecomers in, he explained.

Children are downstairs in the basement, and that is always locked.

Tom Bradley, former director of public relations for the Altoona Area School District and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Altoona, said when he worked for the district, school security “was on my mind 24/7.”

When then-Superinten­dent Dennis Murray hired a school police officer in 1986, “Local citizens thought he was crazy,” Bradley recalled.

But under Murray’s leadership, the school started taking proactive measures to keep the kids safe, including only having a limited number of doors open at the schools, requiring people to sign in, requiring visitor ID badges and more.

“We were light years ahead of most school districts before the Columbine massacre — a tipping point for schools,” Bradley said. “I expect this incident (the Texas church shooting) will have the same effect on churches.”

The Faith Assembly of God, Roaring Spring, has a security team and an action plan in place.

At the Roaring Spring church, the Faith Assembly Safety Team was initiated in November 2011, Don Martin said, with its first mission to provide a safe environment for the congregation and guests as they worship.

The church was assessed through an outside agency and recommendations were made on how best to handle security in the children’s wing, how to manage people approaching the pastors during services and how to take action if a domestic dispute occurs, in addition to how to resolve other problems, Martin said.

The safety team also formed a medical team with three nurses available to respond to anything from a minor cut to performing CPR, he said.

While the Jewish Federation doesn’t have security teams, per se, safety concerns have led to some changes, Wallen said.

During the Jewish High Holy Days, more people attend services.

Several years ago, the church began hiring a private security officer to be outside during the busy holiday season. In addition, the church alerts the Altoona Police Depart­ment of the holiday services, spread over five days, and requests an increase in patrols during that time.

“Over the years, there have been different things in different communities,” he added, “but we’ve never had any incidents over the holidays that I’m aware of. We just felt it was better for everyone to feel secure and not worry.”

Going too far?

While area church leaders feel it’s important to make sure people are safe, many of those interviewed thought guns in church go too far — many pointing to a 2015 incident in which a gun in a man’s pocket fired during an Easter service at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but it is an example of what could happen, they said.

What steps churches take to protect congregants is determined by the makeup of the church, Hershberger said.

Although the Church of the Brethren is a peaceful church, she knows of one “pistol-packing pastor.” She didn’t reveal names but said that practice appears to work for that particular church. Safety versus welcoming is a hard conversation, Hershberger said.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re not going that route (with armed guards),” said Pastor Elizabeth Hess, with Trinity Lutheran Church, Altoona.

“We don’t have security cameras in church,” she said, adding that although there may be people who go to church carrying a concealed weapon, it’s not a practice she condones.

“I don’t think we need armed guards,” she said.

Hess said the church shootings weren’t random. Dylann Roof targeted the South Carolina church.

“There was a connection,” Hess said.

The same is true for the recent church shooting in Texas.

Hess believes recent talk of church security and armed guards is more of a knee-jerk reaction.

“We are not burying our heads in the sand,” she said. “But we are not going off the deep end, either … saying we have to lock the doors and become an unwelcome church.”

Hess said a few years ago, during a 10 a.m. Christmas Eve service, a man entered the church and disrupted the worship service. He was visibly intoxicated and said he wanted to sing. He felt he wasn’t dressed right and left, then came back in again, she recalled.

Understandably, the man caused some uneasiness, she said. Hess came down from the pulpit and talked to him. Within a few moments, it was determined he was no threat.

He was wearing a coat over a T-shirt, she said. He removed both to show the congregation his bullet wounds. “He wanted to tell us about being shot,” she said.

“He ended up testifying to us.”

He also sang.

“He had a beautiful voice,” she recalled.

And once he put his clothes back on and sat down, some men in the congregation sat with him to make sure everything was OK, she said.

“The congregation was scared,” she said, but even after that, there was no talk about having armed guards.

“We talk about fear and what we do in a climate of fear,” Hess said. “You don’t do anything stupid and blind, but you don’t live in that fear, especially in church.”

“I know some churches keep their doors locked all the time. We haven’t gone that far,” she said.

Neither has the Catholic diocese.

“The key for the Catholic church — and for any faith tradition, I think — is to find the balance between creating a welcoming environment and a secure environment,” DeGol said. “At this point, I do not expect to see any dramatic changes at our parishes such as locking doors during Mass or having armed security people.”

Keeping kids safe

When it comes to the churches’ most precious charges, the rules change.

At Trinity Lutheran, the door to the preschool is always locked to keep the children safe, Hess said.

“The janitor unlocks the door to let the kids come in, then locks it behind them all,” she said. “Then after preschool is over, the janitor unlocks the door for parents to come in and pick up their children. That’s a normal practice to keep the children safe,” she explained.

At Faith Assembly in Roaring Spring, the children’s wing is also secure, Martin said. All children are checked in at the welcome desk and provided a name tag, and they are only released to their parents or guardians.

“There is a constant vigilance, and if a parent or guardian is needed, they are notified on the sanctuary screen,” he added.

Welcome to pray

During office hours, people are welcome to come in and pray at Trinity Lutheran.

“They stop at the office and will ask,” Hess said. “We’ll say sure, go on up. They’re welcome to go to the sanctuary.”

That seems to be true of all area worship sites. But it’s a shift from years long gone when doors were open even when no one was around.

“Years ago, people could go in, sit and think and pray. I’m not aware that that occurs now,” Wallen said. “It’s sadly a different world.”

Over the past year, bomb threats to Jewish communities, day cares, schools and cemeteries have probably caused synagogues across the nation to take additional security measures or, at the very least, to review current security measures and make changes where needed, he said.

Over the past several years, both Jewish congregations in Altoona — Agudath Achim and Temple Beth Israel — have upgraded their security systems, he said.

Those security systems won’t stop someone from walking in during services as the doors remain unlocked during that time.

“We’ve had people walk in during services,” he said, but it’s not a usual occurrence.

That wasn’t the case about 100 or even 50 years ago, he said,

“Jewish transients would go from town to town. … You would invite them in for Shabbat dinner or services,” he said. “Our whole society has changed.”

But worshippers shouldn’t let fear rule, religious leaders said.

“I appreciate having the conversation about being scared,” Hess said. “But we don’t need to live paralyzed. It’s OK to name it … fear.”

Life-changing witness

The Rev. Michael Rhyne, bishop of the Allegheny Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, is originally from the South and went to seminary with pastor Clem Pinckney, one of the victims of the South Carolina shooting.

The two were good friends, and news of Pinckney’s death and the manner in which he and others died “was quite a shock,” Rhyne said.

Rhyne said that shooting didn’t cause him to be fearful. In fact, when church members forgave the shooter during Roof’s arraignment, that had a bigger impact on his life.

“Hate won’t win was a rallying cry in Charleston. That really affected me,” Rhyne said. “That families would not let darkness consume them. That was powerful.”

“That event shaped my life,” he said.

The Texas shooting also hit close to home. Rhyne has a 14-year-old daughter, and the 14-year-old killed in the Texas church was the pastor’s daughter.

“It makes me pray for the pastor who had 27 funerals and his daughter’s” to get through, Rhyne said.

And still he doesn’t think guns belong in church.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. None of our churches have armed guards. I would never advocate for that,” he said, noting the Allegheny Synod is comprised of 116 congregations in Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Centre, Clearfield, Huntingdon and Somerset counties.

But safety in church is something that must be considered.

“There is no easy ans­wer,” he said. “How do we do that … look out for our people but be welcoming to others? Those are questions the church has to be in conversation with itself.

“We can lock all the doors — and some people do — but is it welcoming?” he asked.

Going back to a basic religious tenet, “Be welcoming to the world. That’s the rub,” he said. “How do we both welcome and invite and keep people safe and secure?”

“In Charleston, that was really a hate crime. It made me ask myself if a stranger came in, would I welcome him like they did?” he said.

Rhyne believes people of God are going to lean toward being welcoming and inviting strangers in “as communities of faith and as communities in general,” he said.

For now, Rhyne said: “I pray for the day when we don’t have to worry about this stuff anymore.”

Safety on all fronts

On the matter of safety, Wallen thinks churches should consider safety as a whole.

The synagogue includes two prayer areas. The big sanctuary has three doors leading into and out of the area, as does the small chapel.

The children’s classes participate in fire drills, and they are familiar with the exits. But emergency drills have not been conducted with the adults, he said.

It’s definitely something all churches ought to think about, he said.

“The churches are old buildings. The wiring could be 100 years old,” he said, noting for many, fires are more likely than a mass shooting.

In recent years, the synagogue has added a portable defibulator because of its many older congregants.

“We think about their health. We should think about other safety issues, too,” he said.

Hershberger said she spent 27 years as a public school teacher.

“We were learning lockdown and things like that before I left. So, let’s look at our building. Do we have exit signs where we need them? Maybe we need head ushers to be greeters, helpers,” she said.

They could be on hand if someone fainted or had another emergency.

“They could be responsible for calling 911 … or for child protection,” she said. “I don’t think we need to go to locking down, but we can be more prudent. There is the idea that the church is a sanctuary. If you were trying to find safety …

shouldn’t you be able to go into a church to find safety?”

“Is there nowhere anyone can go when they’re in need?” Hershberger said, reminded of a time when churches were always open.

“Now I guess it’s Sheetz,” she said.

A ripple of change

Despite the shootings, people continue to attend church, and that’s perhaps the best that can be done in uncertain times, religious leaders said.

“Could one of the positive things to come out of all this be that we re-teach it? That the church is to be a place of sanctuary?” Hershberger asked.

“We can do good here,” Rhyne said. “As we do good here, I think it affects the world. It’s like ripples in water, it reaches out. … It can make a difference. If you feel helpless, feed somebody. Take food to the food bank, clothing to Goodwill.

“Imagine if everybody said ‘that’s something I can do’ and then does it,” Rhyne said.

The world would be a better, safer place for everyone.

“Part of my hope is that we keep finding our way through this,” Hershberger said. “We keep being thoughtful, finding a way to minister in God’s name and maybe (the world) will change.”

“Even seeing the evil in the last shooting makes me aware, more thoughtful, about my personal witness and the witness of the church in the world,” Hershberger said. “I would hope we would reveal God’s redeeming grace more, not less. It makes me think I want to be more prudent. I sure hope good comes from it.

“That’s one of my mantras, that God uses our responses to evil to bring good.”