Episcopalians balance fear with preparation in the wake of U.S. mass shootings

April 18, 2018

The Rev. Mike Angell, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, speaks at an April 11 ecumenical unity press conference. Photo: Fred Koenig

[Episcopal News Service] As Americans reel from the rising number of mass shootings, the possibility of such violence happening at any gathering anywhere seems more real.

To cope, Episcopalians have relied on  efforts to balance preparing for the worst with their faith. The most recent tragedy — the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people  — mobilized youth nationwide to fight for better gun-violence prevention laws with marches and protests, Episcopal youth included.

“We’re trying very hard not to encourage hysteria, but we want to be prepared,” said the Rev. Kate Atkinson, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which is across the street from the state house in Concord, New Hampshire. “Who knows what the dangerous person will look like? We have to be vigilant but not frightened. I refuse to be frightened. But at the same time, I am responsible for my parish and I don’t want anything to happen to them.”

Numbers vary depending on how a mass shooting is defined. Often the term requires three or more deaths. Regardless, 2017 was called the deadliest year for mass killings in a decade, totaling 208 deaths shortly after the Nov. 5 shooting that killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

If the Feb. 14 school shooting is any indication, 2018 won’t be much better. Meanwhile, Episcopal leaders are striving to comfort and calm their congregations while also examining ways to prepare for the worst.

Before those 26 people were gunned down in the Texas church, the closest mass church shooting killed nine people on June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Three people died in a May 3, 2012 shooting at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland. The assumed assailant was a homeless man who used the church’s soup kitchen, who police believe committed suicide by shooting himself afterward.

The church’s warden at the time, Craig Stuart-Paul, later pledged that the parish’s ministry would continue, “and we won’t do it from behind bulletproof glass.”

Many plans, procedures and technologies are already in place, but Episcopalians are being made more aware of them. Vestries are updating their emergency plans. Some priests and bishops are participating in gun violence seminars, workshops and other trainings. Still others are fighting state gun laws.

Include gun violence in emergency plans

The Church Pension Group’s Safety & Insurance Handbook for Churches, available online, addresses what to do in an emergency involving gun violence.

Quick communication and notification is key, the handbook emphasizes. And depending on church needs and budget, leaders can implement or update their regular security measures to incorporate newer technology, such as buzzed-in entry, automated locking, camera systems and key access. A diocese with a large, metropolitan cathedral often has a security guard.

But it’s more than that.

“As recent devastating events in a wide variety of public places have demonstrated, it’s important to have plans in place to mitigate the risk of violence — and to be able to react appropriately and quickly in case something does happen,” the handbook, written in 2015, states. “You should have a violence preparedness plan, just as you have disaster preparedness plans in case of fires, floods, or tornadoes — and run drills, too, just as you would for a fire or tornado.”

In the Diocese of New Hampshire, at least four churches have hosted active shooter drills or seminars. About 120 people attended a drill on how to deal with active shooter situations at Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester on April 8.

The free drills were led by Blue-U Defense, a group of off-duty or retired law enforcement officers with training experience in preparedness for organizations including churches, Bishop Rob Hirschfeld told Episcopal News Service. The events were hosted by Episcopal churches and were open to people from other faith communities as well.

“I’m encouraged by people coming away from this with a sense of reasonableness; they’re less panicked, more empowered, more aware of the space they’re in and the possibilities to frustrate the intent of those who wish to do harm. And that’s good,” said Hirschfeld, a member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence.

“They’re given strategies. We don’t want our people to live in fear. As Marianne Williamson has said, ‘Fear is not a Christian habit of mind,’” he said, quoting the spiritual activist and author.

On April 11, about 45 leaders of area faith communities convened for a Civilian Response to an Active Shooter Event (CRASE) training led by local police at St. Paul’s in Concord. The training was geared toward heightened security, urging faith leaders to be wise about what doors are locked and unlocked, who’s monitoring the building, what’s happening with the children and official response protocol, according to Atkinson, the rector.

The first piece of advice used to be to hide, but now it’s ADD: Avoid, deny and defend, Atkinson said the CRASE experts told them. The first line of action is to try to escape. If that’s not possible, deny access by hiding, barricading and calling 911. If the shooter does reach you, defend yourself however you can, especially as a group.

After that initial seminar, Concord police officers are continuing the training by arranging site visits with each participating religious group to tour the buildings and give tips, Atkinson said. The church safety policy discourages people from bringing in concealed weapons, Atkinson said.

The downtown church serves many visitors in its food pantry, thrift store and clothing bank. Those ministries mean a higher percentage of homeless and mentally ill visitors. But as Atkinson has realized, you never know what the shooter will look like, so you can’t stop doing God’s will.

“A lot of the people we deal with on a daily basis can be frightening, but they’re also frightened, and they need our help,” she told ENS.

At St. Peter’s in Carson City, Nevada, on March 9, representatives from the Carson City Sheriff’s and Fire departments met with parishioners and discussed church safety and active shooter situations, as well as emergency medical situations, fires and earthquakes. The training brought calm assurance to people, Nevada Bishop Dan Edward told ENS.

Donna Bernert, a member of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Eureka, Missouri, organized members of her parish to staff a Lock It for Love booth at the annual Eureka Days celebration on Sept. 8-9. Fifty gun locks were distributed free of charge. The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has partnered with Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, a St. Louis advocacy organization, in supporting Lock It for Love. Photo: Episcopal Diocese of Missouri

Part of planning for emergencies involves prevention methods, such as distributing gun locks so the guns don’t get in the wrong hands.

St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, New Hampshire, has a social justice ministry that brokered an arrangement between local law enforcement agencies and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an National Rifle Association-affiliated, Second Amendment advocacy group based in Newtown, Connecticut. Despite what Hirschfeld called the chasm between the church and the NRA, the foundation will make these gun locks available to 15 police stations in the Monadnock region of southwestern New Hampshire, he said. It’s called Project ChildSafe, a free national program.

“It’s a little thread across the chasm,” Hirschfeld said.

Carrying guns inside churches — legally

Parallel to the controversial arm-the-teachers solution in schools, proponents of more freedom to carry firearms inside churches say it will enable parishioners to defend themselves and protect others. Otherwise, church members are sitting ducks, they say. That thinking has influenced lawmakers.

Yet the Episcopalians ENS spoke to said trained police often miss their intended targets, so inexperienced civilians will have even less chance of aiming correctly and can make the fatal mistake of shooting an innocent bystander. Plus, when more people are wielding guns, it’s often difficult to tell who the “bad guy” is when law enforcement does arrive to make split-second decisions.

Some Episcopalians, such as those in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, are grappling with either existing state laws or proposed amendments that allow firearms in church.

On April 11, Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and other Episcopal leaders joined Roman Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Baptist and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America leaders at a press conference decrying the proposed Missouri House Bill 1936 amending a law to expand where concealed weapons are allowed, extending the allowance to churches.

Missouri churches have historically been gun-free zones.

As the law states now, a person must receive special permission from clergy to carry a concealed weapon on church property. The new law would allow someone to carry a concealed weapon inside a church or other religious institution unless a sign banning weapons is prominently displayed. The sign must be at least 11 by 14 inches with writing that is at least 1 inch tall, according to the bill.

The Rev. Mike Angell helped organize the ecumenical press conference.

This proposed gun legislation has galvanized a rare show of unity among faith communities that normally disagree, he said. The various participating faith leaders argue that the proposed state amendment is a radical expansion of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, at the expense of their First Amendment right of religious freedom. Throughout history, religious groups have fought wars over what was displayed inside houses of worship, Angell said. And to have to post government-regulation signs that in order to preserve the sanctuary of these faith centers is “offensive,” he said, and the faith communities were not even consulted during the legislative process.

“We do believe people have a right to responsible gun ownership. Several bishops are gun owners,” Angell told ENS. “But this is a radical redefinition of what the Second Amendment means. It would also allow guns in day care centers, bars and schools. That’s problematic. We don’t operate a bar, but we operate all those others.”

Angell is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, which rents out some of its facilities to a children’s music school, AA groups and other community activities. The vestry is examining new emergency plans and active-shooter training possibilities.

“We’re looking at all sorts of ways to update those emergencies procedures. We’ve been asked by some of our tenants, really since the Parkland school shooting and the Texas church shooting,” he said.

As the bishop’s deputy for gun violence prevention, the Rev. Marc Smith uses his 10 years’ experience as the former president of the Missouri Hospital Association to come at the problem from a public health perspective. He’s been working on six initiatives since his appointment almost three years ago.

The Rev. Anne Kelsey and the Rev. Marc Smith, the Missouri bishop’s deputy for gun violence prevention, protest with signs during the St. Louis March for Our Lives on March 24. Photo: the Rev. Paula Hartsfield

While other Episcopal churches and diocese across the United States have undertaken several similar initiatives such as awareness campaigns and gun lock distributions, two of the most cutting-edge initiatives that Smith hasn’t noticed elsewhere involve training clergy and creating a curriculum.

First, a partnership with Washington University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and the Walker Leadership Institute at Eden Seminary has helped develop and present seminars to equip clergy and laity to care for the victims of gun violence. Smith has conducted seminars regularly with crime victim care organizations, as well as seminars at Eden Theological Seminary and Concordia Seminary.

Second, Smith is creating a six-module curriculum for use by faith communities to explore the many forms of violence in American culture and the church’s responsibility for responding to them: violence in scripture; America as a culture of violence; gun violence; domestic abuse and sexual violence; bullying and suicide; and reconciliation and forgiveness. He’s invited experts in each area to share on instructional videos, and the curriculum will be online.

Smith also wrote a litany for victims of gun violence, available online.

In November of 2012, Bishop Edward J. Konieczny issued a policy for every organization in the Diocese of Oklahoma, in direct contrast to the just-passed Oklahoma Self-Defense Act/Open Carry Law. The law says no person, property owner, tenant, employer or business entity can make a policy prohibiting anyone, except a convicted felon, from carrying a weapon on premises.

That did not stop Konieczny, a former Southern California police officer.

He wrote: “As such, after careful review, the policy of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma is to prohibit any weapon inside any building owned or occupied by the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, Episcopal churches, Episcopal schools or institutions, and Episcopal camp and conference centers.”

The bishop’s exceptions included government employees acting in their capacity to do so, security officers for special events and organized training or sporting events such as skeet shooting. Any other exception would require prior written approval from the bishop.

Konieczny has his own concealed weapon permit, and told the crowd at the April 2014 Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace: an Episcopal Gathering to Challenge the Epidemic of Violence conference hosted in his diocese that he has been called “the gun-toting bishop.”

“By any definition of the word, the frequency of violent acts in our society is of epidemic proportion,” he told the conference members. “I am not willing to accept that we are destined to suffer the tragedies that have plagued our society. Instead, I am convinced that we can change judgmental attitudes, intolerant behaviors and the violence in our society.”

After the Feb. 25, 2016, shootings in Hesston and Newton, Kansas, that killed three people, Episcopal Diocese of Kansas’ then-Bishop Dean Wolfe and Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas Bishop Michael Milliken issued a pastoral directive banning firearms from Episcopal churches in the state, unless they are carried by designated law enforcement officials in the line of duty.

In a letter sent to all churches, the bishops said the state law amendments reversed long-standing law and practice. The changes allowing anyone to bring guns into a church, they wrote, “unnecessarily endanger the citizens of our state and the members of our parishes.”

Protecting the young

Churches often have day care centers and primary schools on their premises, which call to mind how the response of adults can affect some of the most vulnerable populations.

Nevada Bishop Dan Edward said the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and school shooting in Parkland, Florida, have had more impact on churches in his diocese than an Oct. 1 shooting at a Las Vegas country music concert that killed 58 people. That mass shooting caused an outpouring of compassion, he told ENS, but the Parkland school shooting mobilized youth across his diocese in marches and protests. At the Las Vegas March for Our Lives in March, survivors of the October shooting, as well as gun violence victims in domestic abuse and LGBTQ hate crimes, spoke.

Prevention of gun violence and caring intervention for its victims are key to maintaining a safe, holy sanctuary, Episcopal leaders say. They’re taking action, while keeping in mind their higher calling in the Christian faith. They must stay reasonable, these priests and bishops told ENS.

It’s good to remember that there is an extremely low likelihood of people being killed or injured in mass shootings, and even more so in churches; they’re taking far greater risk getting in their cars and driving on the highway, Edward said.

“That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to us, but we live in faith. Our call in facing violence is to respond nonviolently,” Edward said. “The most frequent command Jesus gave us was ‘Do not be afraid.’ Not that we shouldn’t feel fear, but don’t live in fear and let it have you, to control our lives.”

“Instead, let our faith control our lives.”

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at amysowderepiscopalnews@gmail.com

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