How do we keep a church safe without locking the doors?

CHARLESTON—Less than three months ago, nine people were killed in a hail of bullets inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a hate crime.

Since then, seminars on how to improve church security have popped up with increasing frequency around the state and country. In the last few weeks alone, discussions sponsored by the FBI, local police departments and private groups were held in dozens of cities in the state.

Parishioners and pastors alike wonder how to make their environments safer.

Father Henry Kulah, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Charleston, attended a recent Sheepdog Seminar along with several parishioners, including Beverly Buford, the parish administrative assistant. She said they were looking for ideas on how to increase their day-to-day security. Tracy Bates, with Catholic Mutual Group, also attended the two-day event.

In his talks, Jimmy Meeks, Sheepdog leader, describes Jesus as a warrior who protected His people, and encourages parishes to find warriors within their own communities; people willing to serve as watchdogs for the rest of the flock.

“The main thing we want to do is awaken the churches to what’s going on,” Meeks explained. “They think, ‘God will protect us’, but houses of worship are not necessarily safe places.”

This is a reality that Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone knows well. He recalled a friend of his who was shot while celebrating Mass, but said the action of criminals cannot change the Church.

“There is no way we can operate as a church and be risk-free unless we close our doors,” the Bishop said.

It’s a delicate balance for churches, whose purpose is to welcome the stranger and help those in need. Bishop Guglielmone said reasonable security and vigilance are smart ideas, and he encourages people to attend seminars and educate themselves on safety precautions.

Buford said peepholes, security cameras, and police buzzers are all good ideas, but she wonders how far churches should go.

“You can be aware of people and keep an eye on your surroundings, but you don’t want to accuse,” she said.

Bates said she will be touring church and school campuses this year and looking at ways to amp up security. One simple suggestion she likes is covering windows and doors with transparent film that allows people to see out but not in.

Other ideas espoused in seminars, and asked about by parishioners, are not as well received.

Bishop Guglielmone said he is not in favor of armed security guards, or of having people carry guns into Mass, noting that it is against state law to have a gun inside a church. He also dismisses the idea of installing metal detectors at entrances.

“If safety is a risk of our ministry then we have to take it,” he said, adding that the only thing that made the killer at Emanuel AME hesitate at all was the outpouring of love from the people.

For more information on seminars or how to form a parish safety team, contact your local police department.