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Congregations learn how to keep their worshipers safe

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2010 - In a time of heightened security and concern over terrorism and other violent acts, how can houses of worship preserve their main mission of being accessible and welcoming without leaving themselves open to harm?

One of the answers that emerged from a conference at Missouri Baptist University Thursday comes down to this: The Lord will help those that help themselves.

"The issue is not if terrorism will strike a house of worship," said Stephen J. Heidke, director of public safety for the university in Creve Coeur, "but when."

When it does, he added, damage can be minimized if congregations prepare by tightening security, improving staff training and having a definite plan.

Heidke, who organized the conference that was attended by about 100 people from area houses of worship and law enforcement agencies, said his concern over heightened security stems from two incidents.

The first was the massacre at Virginia Tech University in 2007, where a gunman shot and killed 32 people and wounded many others before committing suicide. The second was closer to home, at First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., where Pastor Fred Winters was gunned down in March 2009 as he preached at a Sunday morning service.

Heidke, a veteran of more than 25 years in law enforcement, said after the shooting last year, "a little light bulb went off. I have a venue where I can offer this. Because of situations like Virginia Tech, we have become experts in dealing with instances of hostile incidents. With that training, and my experience, it seemed like a natural thing to do.

"We know we can't prevent trouble from coming our way. But we want to be ready if it does."

Violence at houses of worship is no recent evolution. In 1977, for example, Joseph Franklin, an admitted neo-Nazi and anti-Semite, killed Gerald Gordon in the parking lot of a synagogue in Richmond Heights. The synagogue had just held a bar mitvah. Franklin had apparently checked out a number of synagogues.

At the session -- set, coincidentally, on the National Day of Prayer -- Heidke and others noted that congregations, with their tradition of opening their doors to all who need assistance, are known as soft targets, particularly vulnerable to those who want to do them harm.

They have regular, well publicized hours of operations and attract large groups of people -- just the kind of symbolic target that terrorists and others look for to have maximum impact. And their budgets may not allow the kinds of security measures that would help harden their defenses and keep them safe.

Captain Jon Belmar and Officer Jeremy Romo of the St. Louis County police urged those attending the session to sharpen their mindset, to make sure that they know what has to be done in an emergency situation before authorities can arrive.

"It will seem like an eternity if you're in the building," Belmar said, though he stressed that help can usually be on the way in five minutes or less.

"You guys have to have an appropriate mindset if something happens. You can't depend on those guys to get there right away."

Greeters and ushers can be a first line of defense, keeping a wary eye out for possible problems. And an emergency communications center should be in place, to spread the word if help is needed.

In the meantime, they said, make sure you know what the wisest course of action is.

As an example, Belmar talked about a school he visited, where he asked about their emergency procedure if a gunman was in the building.

Told that the school would go on lockdown, he asked two questions: Do classroom doors open inward or outward? Can they be locked?

Because the doors opened outward, and they could not be locked, Belmar noted that what sounds like a reasonable plan actually could mean that easy targets would be trapped in a building with little opportunity to be safe.

"We're not here to say never lock down," Romo said. "But to have an indefinite lockdown and hide in the corner until the police get here may not be the best way to handle the situation."

Added Belmar:

"If you're a Sunday School teacher in charge of a room of third-graders, that's pretty intense. If you're the deacon at a men's pancake breakfast, you've probably got some options.

"You've got a window of two to five minutes where you have to have a plan to deal with it. We need your help, as law enforcement officers, to buy us that time and minimize the loss of life."

Romo spelled out the responsibilities of the initial responders this way:

  • Save as many lives as possible.
  • Engage the shooter as soon as possible.
  • Wait for sufficient personnel to arrive.
  • Don't rush in alone.
  • Visualize how to handle various scenarios.
  • And deploy your plan.

Those steps may not be easy to accomplish in the chaos that can accompany an attack, he noted, with possible smoke and fire, alarms blaring and perhaps a power blackout. But, he stressed, "You've got to develop that survival attitude."
Taking a potential attacker's state of mind into account can help defuse a situation, he said. "If you listen to them and let them vent, that may be buy you some time."

But, Romo added, in some situations, talking won't do any good -- for example, in a domestic violence case, where the attacker knows his or her target attends worship services at a certain time and has been lying in wait.

The adage "if you see something, say something" -- heard often in the wake of the recent unsuccessful car bombing in Times Square -- remains good advice, he said.

"If something doesn't seem right, follow your gut feeling and act on it," he said. "Fear is a good thing. Fear is going to motivate you."

FBI Agent Matthew Brummund noted that someone likely to strike at a house of worship may have shown violent tendencies in the past. Unlike in the investment industry, he said, past performance often is an indicator of future results.

"You guys are in the business of redemption and change," he said, "but people don't become terrorists overnight."

So keeping a watch out makes sense, he said. "A little bit of paranoia is pretty good."

Brummund said that nearly 20 percent of the 7,800 hate crimes reported in the U.S. in 2008 were religious-based, and of those, two-thirds were characterized as anti-Jewish.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, is familiar with such incidents. She told the group of a recent call to an orthodox day school where someone asked whether the school was open, and when he was told yes, simply chuckled and mentioned being a bomber.

The school was evacuated, bomb-sniffing dogs were pulled in from Lambert Airport and the school was searched; an all-clear was sounded after three tension-filled hours.

She said all places of worship need to be extra vigilant in such an atmosphere, asking questions like what is that bag doing sitting in the corner unclaimed? Who is that person who showed up to help that no one knows? Why is someone sitting in a car outside the facility all alone?

"That's what security is all about," she said. "It's not about planning for what's happened in the past. It's about planning for what might happen in the future."

Heidke, the university's head of public safety, listed several resources that congregations can use to help prepare for possible attacks, including HOPE Begins Here and a faith-based initiative set up by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. The FBI and local police departments also are available, and many houses of worship are on an e-mail notification system designed to let each other know when suspicious people may be lurking or attempting to gain access to their property.

That sort of vigilance helps, Heidke says, and has become much more prevalent in the 14 months since the fatal shooting in Maryville shattered a quiet Sunday morning service.

"The only protection Pastor Winters had," Heidke said, "was his Bible."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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