Some local Churches locking doors during services for safety
jjenet | November 9, 2008 at 10:01 pmby
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Citing the safety of its members, St. John United Church of Christ in Robinson announced about a month ago that it was locking its doors during its 10:45 a.m. Sunday services.
The reason for the policy is the rise in the number of violent acts committed in and around houses of worship in this country, said Virginia Wuebker, church council co-president.
Although there have been no specific violent incidents that spurred the decision, Wuebker said, “it is a reflection of the world in which we’re living today.”
Church sanctuaries used to be reliable refuges from the outside world. But in recent years, the world has intruded on that peace — often with violence.
A church shooting snagged national headlines as recently as Nov. 1, when a gunman lurking outside a northern Kentucky church killed a Cincinnati pastor and wounded another minister who were there to attend a funeral.
So churches like St. John UCC are having to come up with strategies to stay safe while still welcoming strangers.
Wuebker said St. John’s decision to bar the door comes after “several incidents of people coming in unannounced, for different reasons — not to worship.”
She acknowledged a locked sanctuary door seems to send contradictory messages to visitors.
“We are open to people who want to be a part of us,” she said. “But there are some people who do not want to be a part of us, and telling the difference is the trick.”
St. John is not alone in this dilemma.
Churches sometimes have to take “what one might consider drastic measures to prevent serious harm,” said the Rev. Joe A. Carbajal, senior pastor of Mighty Wind Worship Center of Waco.
“If the local church ever loses its ‘safe-haven’ feel,” he said, “people will not be able to worship in spirit and truth because they will always be looking over their shoulder.”
At Mighty Wind, he said, all leaders are instructed to take any action deemed necessary to prevent an escalation of harm to congregants.
“We’ve had situations in the past where we have had to, within a service, deal with homeless people, mentally unstable folks and people involved in family violence. We’ve had to talk them down, tackle them, escort them out forcefully or have our off-duty police handle these situations,” Carbajal said. “We will never allow for our members and visitors to be put in harm’s way by the actions of someone who may not be in their right mind for whatever reason.”
Wuebker concurred: “The safety of our members has to take precedence over the inconvenience of a few.”
Jerry Freedman, pastor of Bethel Methodist Church in Robinson, said he could understand St. John’s concern, as a more visible, “very prominent church” on the main thoroughfare in Robinson.
In contrast, his small church, located at 104 S. Old Robinson Road, is somewhat off the beaten path in an older section of the town that doesn’t get a lot of through traffic.
“Our only security issue really is the kids in the nursery,” he said. Bethel has video surveillance cameras set up there for the safety of the children and caregivers.
Once the service starts, only one door of the seven into the church is locked, at the back of the fellowship hall, he added. And ushers keep an eye on the parking lot for signs of trouble.
“I don’t think we’d ever get to the point where we’d lock every door during the service,” Freedman said. “In fact, we’ve gone out of our way to make sure we open (unlock) both of the double doors in the front, so people know they are welcome here.”
He added, “It is a sad testimony that due to the perceived sense of violence against churches that St. John feels it has to go to those measures. It’s a sad statement about the greater culture as well.”
The Rev. Raymond Bailey, pastor of Seventh and James Baptist Church of Waco, said his congregation posts lay people in the outer foyer for the safety of the children.
“There is no totally safe place, and I was not surprised when I learned of the first attacks in churches,” he recalled. “We cannot allow our churches generally to become armed camps.”
However, he added, the congregations must assess the risks in their location and take whatever precautions they think are necessary for the security of their worshippers.
“I continue to believe the easy access to guns increases the risk,” Bailey said. “Poor gun-control laws make guns available to emotionally disturbed persons. I am aware of only one case where a church was threatened by robbers. Most cases seem to be the outgrowth of domestic conflicts or mentally ill individuals.”
At First Presbyterian Church, 1100 Austin Ave., the doors are unlocked Sunday mornings. On Sunday evenings, said the Rev. Jimmie Johnson, the Franklin Avenue doors are kept open for church programming.
Johnson said that off-duty Waco police officers work the parking lots.
“We have found the officers most sensitive to helping us still be welcoming and at the same time secure,” he said.
The church “is committed to helping anchor the downtown area and doing mission in its unique context, while ensuring that our older and younger members will have complete confidence in their safety both in their coming and going,” the pastor added.
As the economy worsens and societal tensions increase, the pastors say they are concerned that things could get worse unless they take precautions.
“We must always remember that desperate people do desperate things,” Carbajal said. “It’s all about minimizing disruptions while being open to provide ministry to the hurting and tired.”