Chicago Tribune: Recent violence in churches exposes lack of security, experts say

Churches that shrug off safety issues give their congregations false sense of security, experts say

Dr. George Tiller wore a bulletproof vest as he handed out bulletins in his church’s lobby on May 31. But it wasn’t enough to save the abortion provider when a man aimed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger.

Fortunately for the other members of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan., the gunman turned and walked away instead of carrying out his vendetta on the congregation.

But experts say that as congregations offer shelter for victims of domestic violence, protest gun laws or take controversial stands on abortion, gay rights and the Middle East conflict, houses of worship have become battlegrounds and targets for attack. The prevailing false sense of security only adds to the danger, they say.

“Our society has deteriorated to the point where people will take the battle right into the church,” said Jeffrey Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, a national organization focused on helping churches plan for emergencies. “People see it as a soft target rather than see it as a place of reverence anymore.”

But Hawkins and others say U.S. churches are loath to admit they have safety concerns for fear they might scare members away. Some don’t take precautions. Others that have safeguards such as bodyguards or cameras hide them from congregations. Others simply stay silent on social issues, illustrating the chilling effect such danger can have on ministry.

“As Christians we have to do what God places on our heart,” Hawkins said. “But in reality you also have to be prepared to protect your church and your congregation.”

Hawkins and others say that on matters of security, Christians in particular have been complacent. (Targeted by racists for decades, many African-American churches are an exception.)

The frequency of violent incidents at churches has risen in recent years, experts say. According to the Christian Security Network, there have been 45 acts of arson and 14 violent or threatening incidents across the nation since January in which suspects brought knives or guns to church or opened fire.

Jewish congregations, on the other hand, have been ahead of the curve in providing security due in part to neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues, according to Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Secure Community Network, which provides safety advice to mostly Jewish groups across the country.

“Security is a long-term activity. It should not be a reaction to yesterday’s headlines,” said Jay Tcath, senior vice president of public affairs for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “By definition the security risks often come when we least expect it.”

Muslim congregations have been on higher alert since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which prompted a backlash against Muslims.

“When certain reports are in the media about terrorist attacks, the ‘Vigilante Joes’ become provoked,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “At those times, we hear incidents of people attacked.”

But statistics gathered by the Anti-Defamation League, CAIR and the Christian Security Network show that synagogues and mosques in the U.S. aren’t the scenes of violent crimes as often as churches.

Recognizing the spike in crimes across religious denominations, ASIS International, formerly the American Society for Industrial Security, the world’s largest trade group for security professionals, recently began developing guidelines for houses of worship. The organization will offer its first seminar for church security directors and clergy worldwide at its September meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

Don Knox, an ASIS team chairman and director of security for his Baptist church in Peoria, said the need for security standards has been a hard sell for people who believe “it can’t happen here.”

Some churches have found the safest measure is silence. “It has kept churches from taking hard stands and controversial stands, because with it there’s a cost,” said Rev. Michael Pfleger, the outspoken pastor of Chicago’s St. Sabina Catholic Church who is surrounded by a dozen volunteer bodyguards every Sunday.

Pfleger’s condemnation of guns has inspired hundreds of threats. “Out of nothing comes all this hate,” he said.

Regardless of whether they take controversial stands, churches should regulate who moves about the worship space during the offering and should train ushers to be the church’s front line of defense, Knox said.

Goldenberg said churches should not think of security merely as guns, guards, cameras and metal detectors. The most important safety precaution is the human dimension.

Eighty percent of the people who commit crimes against churches have paid them a visit, Hawkins said. A friendly greeting and a watchful eye can prevent a crime, he added.

“The last thing we want to do is build walls around our houses of worship, and I don’t think this will come to fruition in our country,” Goldenberg said. “This is America. … People take responsibility for their houses of worship like they do their children.”

Knox said it is a delicate balance, but one worth striking.

“We want to provide all the awareness so people aren’t caught off guard,” Knox said.

Copyright © 2009 Chicago Tribune