Churches need to “wake up” and get security plans in place, said a pastor and retired police officer who teaches pastors and parishioners how to protect themselves.
In the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs outside San Antonio, it’s past time to take action, he said.
“We’ve got to wake them up,” Jimmy Meeks said in telephone interview on his way to Sutherland Springs. “Most churches are not waking up to this fact.”
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Gary Tull, pastor of a rural church near Possum Kingdom Lake, agrees. At a local ministerial alliance meeting, Tull urged pastors to take precautions.
“I think a lot of them are just complacent,” Tull said. “They think those kind of incidents happen to someone else.”
Meeks is a retired Hurst police officer and works as a trainer in church safety. He and other law enforcement experts teach courses — called Sheepdog Seminars — across the United States.
He is hosting a Jan. 27 seminar in Hurst that will include former Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who dealt with the aftermath of the 2015 church shooting in South Carolina. Since 1999, there have been 800 deaths at U.S. churches, Meeks said.
Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on the Sutherland Springs church during Sunday morning’s service, killing 26 worshippers in the deadliest shooting in Texas history.
Meeks said it is essential to have a safety plan in place, whether it’s armed parishioners or off-duty police officers, indoors and outdoors.
“We’ve been pleading with churches for years to get in the parking lot,” said Meeks, who has conducted more than 150 seminars since 2009. “Get outside — I don’t care how hot it is or how cold it is. Get outside and see what’s going on around your church.”
‘A very delicate situation’
While most megachurches in North Texas have security plans in place, including local police working traffic detail, some smaller congregations are again questioning whether it’s time to have armed security at their services.
“It is something all churches are going to have to wrestle with,” said Edward Spears, pastor of Faith & Love Church of God in Christ on the south side of Fort Worth.
The congregation is relatively small with only about 25 showing up for services on Sundays, but Spears said he has worried about security since the June 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine people.
“I think it’s a very delicate situation,” Spears said. “A sanctuary is a very holy place, and I generally prefer not to have firearms in the sanctuary, but we have to be able to survive in the world we live in.”
For now, Spears, a former New Orleans constable and member of the Louisiana National Guard, does not have armed parishioners at church services but he is keeping an eye on anyone who enters his church.
“We do have ushers that man the doors just to make sure they know the people who are coming in,” Spears said. “When you lead and pray, you also watch and pray.”
‘I’m in the middle of nowhere’
The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs is a rural church, which presents challenges because the nearest police officer may be miles away.
Tull’s church, Country Road Fellowship Church, is about 15 miles southeast of Graham and about 75 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
He says security is paramount.
“You’ve got to remember ‘I’m in the middle of nowhere,’ ” Tull said. “ ‘I’m 20 minutes from the nearest town.’ ”
At Country Road Fellowship, there’s a safety plan inside the church as well as outdoors.
“We take it very seriously,” Tull said. “I’m a police chaplain and, yes, we have officers in our church. We also have people who are licensed to carry.”
Just because his church is in a rural area doesn’t mean it’s out of harm’s way, Tull said. But with plenty of local law enforcement attending the church’s services, which reach about 275 attendees on Sundays, Tull said he believes his church is prepared to respond to any emergency.
The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, which includes 90 parishes and 19 schools and covers more than 24,000 square miles across 28 North Texas counties, said each of those places has its own security plan.
“In some instances, law enforcement is present on site during weekend Masses,” the diocese said. “In virtually every parish of the diocese, members of the congregation who attend Mass regularly include law enforcement officers and other first responders who make themselves known to the priests and lay ministers.”