January 29th, 2008 10:30 PM
Why local churches are adding security
Why local churches are adding security
Sites are beefing up procedures in an era when random violence seems to be rising.
By JENNIFER LATSON
January 29, 2008
In a crowded church, Todd Woolston sits in the front row, close to the pastor.
He wears a dark blazer, striped tie, tan slacks and an earpiece with a spiraling plastic cord.
His eyes scan the sanctuary's 1,800 seats — from the right wing, where a woman in a pink coat is pacing, to the back, where a man wearing a black sweater stands with his arms folded. Both wear the same spiraling earpieces. Under the blazer, the coat and the sweater are two-way radios.
When the parishioners bow their heads in prayer, Woolston's head is up, still scanning.
When the pastor flips to 2 Corinthians, Woolston is writing a text message on his cell phone.
Across the room, James Hall's pocket buzzes. He takes out his phone.
"Team observing suspicious male, gray hooded sweat shirt, on balcony. Wandering in and out of service. Attempting to access other buildings," Woolston's message reads. "JT is on it."
In a new era of caution among churches, security isn't far from the pulpit.
THE FORCE OF FAITH
Woolston has been leading an all-volunteer security team at Bethel Temple, an interdenominational church in Hampton, since 2003.
Most of the team members are law enforcement officers — active or retired — who belong to the congregation. They don't wear badges or uniforms. Some carry guns.
Woolston thinks that places of worship are "soft targets" for bad guys, holdouts among the many American institutions that have adopted new security precautions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Churches are thought to be the safest places in the country," he says. "Not anymore. People intent on doing harm are looking for the easiest target, and that's what we are."
He lists the attacks on churches that have made news in the past year:
• A Missouri church shooting left three dead and five wounded in August.
• A double stabbing occurred at a North Carolina church in October.
• In December, a gunman opened fire at a Colorado megachurch, killing two people before he was shot and killed by a volunteer on the church's security team.
PREPARING FOR SERVICE
This Sunday, the Bethel Temple security force consists of six volunteers. They gather at 8:30 a.m. in a small conference room off the sanctuary.
"Let's focus again heavy up front," Woolston tells them. "I'm going to ask Kevin to roam today, check the nursery, kid city, and roam between the two buildings."
A man who isn't a member of the church has been showing up for services lately, disrupting the sermon and making congregants uncomfortable. He has been reported to the police and charged with trespassing. "We'll have eyes out in case he comes back," Woolston says. "The ushers have a picture, but he's changed his hair since then."
Hall says, "I checked all the buildings this morning, and everything looked good." He's a retired military police officer and now a security guard at NASA Langley Research Center. "People were doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Woolston calls the team into a circle to pray.
"Father, we ask for your blessing today. We ask that you would cover your people today. We ask for safety."
In 2005, Woolston left his 16-year career as a Norfolk airport police officer to start a business that helps other congregations develop security teams.
His company, Savior Protection Ministries, has worked with more than 150 churches and synagogues since then, most of them in Hampton Roads.
Woolston says he offers training in the defensive and the divine:
"We try to do everything with a biblical perspective, to keep a balance. We're not posting somebody with sunglasses and a machine gun at the door."
Rabbi Eric Carlson of Congregation Zion's Sake, a messianic synagogue in Denbigh, hired Woolston three years ago. That was about the time when a neo-Nazi group began demonstrating on the Peninsula.
"We've had 3,000 years of this in our history," Carlson says, "but we actually started to have some death threats and threats upon the congregation and the building."
After they were hired, Woolston and his crew showed up at a service, then sneaked through the synagogue — unnoticed — to test its defenses. They found the front doors unlocked and unattended through the service. They found the children's Shabbat school unguarded.
"They were able to walk right into the rooms where the children were. I was aghast," Carlson says. "You don't think about that, of course, until something happens. Now I have a multilayered security system — from ushers that have some base level of training to six men and two women trained specifically to do security."
Security team members, some of them armed, look for anything unusual: long coats, big bags, anything that you wouldn't usually bring to temple. That's how they found one man who came to services with a sword in his bag. He was asked to leave.
Carlson says, "Security is placed in strategic locations. They have an escape plan. They even have a plan for if a shooter comes in.
This sounds almost macabre coming from a temple, but we don't wish to harm anyone. We just want to render the person safe and not let them harm anyone in the congregation. We're doing this in love."
At Denbigh Church of Christ, there are no security guards — armed or unarmed.
"In our situation, that just doesn't seem like it would ever be necessary," Minister Charles Tucker says. Tucker is among a number of spiritual leaders who say places of worship are no place for armed guards.
His 200-member congregation includes people of all perspectives, from pacifists to National Rifle Association members. But because the church has faced no threats more serious than a break-in 20 years ago, Tucker says, the risks don't warrant an armed response.
"I don't have guns in my house, and I don't want them in my house of worship, either," he says. "Somehow it seems counterintuitive to what churches are about."
It's a crime in Virginia to bring a firearm — or "bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon" — to a place of worship "without good and sufficient reason," according to state code. Woolston argues that security volunteers who carry weapons have good and sufficient reason. And they get written permission from church leaders first.
Others say philosophical qualms keep them from endorsing armed security.
"I have a theological position that if someone's going to come in with intent to do harm, that I'm probably going to take a more pacifist position, just out of what I hear in Scripture," says Pastor Ken Tombley of Hope Community Church in Newport News. "We bless those who curse, we serve those who oppress us and we respond in peace to those who respond in violence. At some point, we just have to trust the Lord."
For a haven meant to be open and welcoming, a security team might work at cross purposes, Tombley says. "It's hard to preach a gospel of love when you're carrying a Colt .45."
ALWAYS ON WATCH
The suspicious male in the gray hooded sweat shirt eventually sits back down and finishes the Bethel Temple service in peace. The security team eases back into place.
"It's not usual for people to walk in and out of the service," Woolston says. "Going to the bathroom is one thing, but in and out of buildings is different."
Staying on high alert takes its toll on the security team. With nine doors on the circular sanctuary, three buildings on the church campus and an average of 800 parishioners — plus several hundred children in Sunday school — the six volunteers have a lot to look out for.
They rotate every week with a second group of volunteers, so that every other Sunday, they can just sit and hear the sermon.
"When we're on duty, we're watching the entire time, and communicating," Hall says.
Some in the congregation don't even know that the team is there. Those who do say they appreciate their efforts. They say it's a safeguard against the kind of random attacks that have brought mass casualties in public places like malls and schools — most notably this past year at Virginia Tech.
"Satan, he's everywhere," 81-year-old Willie J. Carr says. "All these people that come in here, a thousand people or more, we see them, but we don't know them."
Others worry about being a target for terrorism.
"We haven't had any attacks on America since 9/11, but it's going to happen," 58-year-old Mo Sanders says. "I don't know if religious organizations are going to be a target, but in other countries they are. It's a possibility."
As Woolston and Hall exchange text messages, the pastor launches into his sermon on Proverbs 24:10.
"If you faint in the day of adversity," the pastor says, quoting the Scripture, "your strength is small."
Church Security Conference
• Savior Protection Ministries is hosting a church security conference Saturday at Bethel Temple, 1705 Todds Lane in Hampton.
• The conference will run from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It will cover topics from defense tactics to the legal issues that church security teams face. It will also include hands-on training lessons.
• Registration is $125 in advance and $175 at the door. To register, visit SAVIOR PROTECTION MINISTRIES
• For more information, call 592-7070.
"Each worker carried his sword strapped to his side." Nehemiah 4:18
Guns Save Lives. Paramedics Save Lives. But...
Paramedics With Guns Scare People!
January 30th, 2008 05:10 AM
Our church has had armed security for years, curly earpieces, guns, lots of cameras, armed guards in the parking lots, etc. We have experienced church members getting robbed at gun point in the parking lot, a woman was nearly raped at knife point inside a secluded stair well, various electronics stolen from class rooms, etc. There are quite a number of members that are not on the "security team" that carry all the time. I can't remember the last time I went to church unarmed. I guess criminals do not respect the sanctity of a house of worship the same way they do not respect the property of others, the lives of others, etc. That is the way it is in a lot of churches in Memphis...The Lord helps them that help themselves.
It is not the Bill of Privileges. It is not the Bill of Permits. It is the Bill of Rights.
People should not be afraid of the government; the government should be afraid of the people.
January 30th, 2008 10:22 AM
Originally Posted by Daily Press
Blessed be the Lord my rock who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle. Psalm 144:1
Si vis pacem, para bellum
January 30th, 2008 12:40 PM
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