EXCHANGE: As shootings increase, churches bolster security
PEORIA, Ill. -- When it comes to safety, Minier Christian Church has decided not to turn the other cheek.
Church leaders and members of the congregation recently finished a series of classes with Good Shepherd Self Defense & Training with the goal of making the growing church less vulnerable to all types of threats, including a mass shooter.
"People have a false sense of security, and churches tend to be in denial," said lead minister Rusty Richards. "I look at it as stewardship. I'm in charge of taking the best care of my congregation. It would be negligent for us to just turn our cheek to the rest of the world. Safety matters."
Since participating in a series of classes starting in April, the church has installed security cameras and shatter-proof film on its doors. It's instituted a safety plan that includes locked doors during slower times at the church - visitors must be buzzed in - and organized a team of trained volunteers to take charge of safety. On Sundays and during large events, when the church typically fills with about 300 people, the safety team keeps an eye on things. They're equipped with radios so word of impending threats can be spread and action quickly taken.
"Good Shepherd helped us develop a plan," said Richards. "We wanted to get ahead of the game. We would rather be proactive and learn some things we can do, not just for mass shooting, but for tornado or fire or medical emergencies, as well as things like how to screen volunteers who work with children."
Minier Christian Church is not the only area church getting proactive about security, said Brian Wood, CEO of Good Shepherd Defense & Training.
"We've done security training in 36 area churches in the last three years," he said while sitting in his office recently. Situated in the light industrial area on north University in Peoria, Good Shepherd has classrooms in the same building as The Tac Shack Pro Shop and Indoor Firing Range, which students use to complete the hands-on requirements for firearm training.
Countering a Mass Shooter is just one of many classes the 14 instructors at Good Shepherd teach. Topics range from firearms to a variety of other self-defense techniques, and seminars addressing the legal aspects of self-defense. Good Shepherd even offers classes on cybersecurity and first aid, basically anything that could help people stay safe.
Though the mass shooter class is designed for any vulnerable entity, from a school to a shopping center, the class has proven particularly popular with area churches, said Wood. The cost of training depends on how long it lasts and how many people attend. Minier Christian Church chose to do the full training, and even invited members of neighboring churches to attend. The first class in April was attended by about 80 people.
"What Good Shepherd did was run us through different scenarios and what to do - tornado, stroke, heart attack - and they provided medical training in the event of a mass shooting, and strategic safety planning," said Richards.
The second class was attended by volunteers chosen for the church's safety team.
"We went off-site and got firearm training," said Richards. "Then we came back to the church and did radio training and hand-to-hand training." Some church members later attended classes to attain their concealed carry licenses.
While firearm training is part of Good Shepherd's Countering the Mass Shooter curriculum, it is not the most important part, said Wood.
"Firearms, for us, are the last resort," he said. "The best thing possible is to make it so the event has never even happened in the first place."
In about eight out of 10 mass shootings there were warning signs before the event happened, said Wood.
"The key is knowing the people in your community, and having an anonymous, safe way for people to say, 'Hey, I'm worried about so and so. Lately I've noticed he's been really depressed, and I've noticed he's been talking about some weird things,'" said Wood.
De-escalation skills are taught to members of the security team.
"They need to be able to listen and emphasize and talk, and they need to not have a short fuse," said Wood. "The biggest thing you have to face is your own ego. You can't win every argument, you have to be able to walk away knowing I was right, but I'm going to concede cause I don't want this to escalate into something stupid."
In the event that violence does erupt, Good Shepherd teaches how to deal with it in ways that minimize damage. In addition to showing churches how to harden their facilities with security cameras, locking doors and shatterproof glass, they also teach first aid skills.
"The average adult can die in minutes from loss of blood and shock. Does anyone in your facility know how to prolong life?" said Wood.
Today, Minier Christian Church has a number of brand new first aid kits with tourniquets and people who know how to use them. The skills church members learned during the classes are skills that will take with them into the community.
"One thing Good Shepherd teaches is to pay attention to your surroundings," said Wood. "So when I'm in Walmart, I'm aware and I'm watching people walk around. I think that is the key to this. It's really just about being aware."
The decision to bolster security can be difficult for many church leaders, said Richards. Some churches simply cannot afford training and security equipment, and some have moral reservations about hardening the facility when churches have traditionally been open and welcoming to everyone. After much thought, the leaders of Minier Christian Church decided a formal safety plan was the right choice for their congregation.
"We expect to have 300 or more people at everything we do, and for large events, we mail postcards out to 20,000 people six times a year. As you invite your surrounding community, you are inviting in a lot of people you don't know, you want your kids to be safe," said Richards.
While guns are a hot topic politically, safety is not. Richards considers it his duty to provide a safe environment for his congregation.
"I actually preached two weeks ago on the theology of self-defense as a Christian. I dug into that. I could share that with any pastor that is interested in that," he said.
Richards said he really started thinking about the issue after the 2017 mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
"Lots of people were killed. It was terrible," said Richards. "That one was a big 'ah ha' for us. What we learned is that rural churches are a soft target. We don't want to make ourselves an easy target."
Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/2ZsxnCA
Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com