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'Are We Prepared?': St. Louis Faith Leaders Strengthen Security Following Attacks

Fellowship of Wildwood, a baptist church in west St. Louis County, allows certain trained congregants to carry weapons. Church leaders say their volunteer security team helps provide peace of mind to the congregation.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Fellowship of Wildwood, a Baptist church in west St. Louis County, allows certain trained congregants to carry weapons. Church leaders say their volunteer security team helps provide peace of mind to the congregation.

It’s hard to tell who has a gun at Fellowship of Wildwood church, unless you’re really looking.

The men stand silently at the edge of the crowd, as worshippers shrug off their heavy winter coats and sip from paper coffee cups before the Sunday service. 

Nicknamed the “sheepdog ministry,” the group of about a dozen volunteers provide armed protection for churchgoers at Fellowship of Wildwood.

Attacks on religious spaces have become a troubling new reality, leaving congregations to grapple with how to respond. While some train congregants or hire armed guards, other faith leaders in St. Louis have resisted the idea of allowing guns inside houses of worship. 

In the past two years, gunmen have attacked worshippers in cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, where a man stormed a synagogue and killed 11 people, and Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed during services at a Baptist church.

Some have hit closer to home for St. Louisans, including a 2009 attack at First Baptist Church in Maryville in which a gunman shot and killed a pastor

“From a theological standpoint, we’re trying to understand why these things are happening,” said Ryan Bowman, a pastor at Fellowship of Wildwood. “But on a very practical level, what would we do? How would we respond? Are we prepared and ready?”

Leaders at Fellowship of Wildwood, a Baptist church that opened in 2017 after two local churches merged, say it would not have been their choice to allow guns — but they felt they had no other option.

Still, only certain trained congregants with explicit permission from the church can carry concealed weapons, Bowman said. 

“You would never want to have a situation where you didn’t know who was carrying,” he explained. “If there was a shooter, we need to know who is supposed to have firearms.”

Fellowship of Wildwood congregants gather for Sunday services on January 12, 2020.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Fellowship of Wildwood congregants gather for Sunday services.

Fellowship of Wildwood member Reginald Jones said he feels safer knowing that some of his fellow congregants are armed. 

“These are friends of ours, and they’re concerned about our safety as well as their families’ safety,” said Jones, who has worked in law enforcement for more than two decades. “It’s a comfortable feeling.” 

The church pays two St. Louis County police officers to provide additional security, at a cost of about $20,000 per year. 

Preparing congregants 

Other local congregations have strengthened their security measures in recent years, including Nusach Hari B’nai Zion synagogue in Olivette. 

The Tree of Life shooting in 2018 was a turning point for the congregation, said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason.

“We could no longer say something like that couldn’t happen here,” Smason said. “It was just pure, unadulterated hatred.” 

The Orthodox congregation, which dates back to the early 1900s, went through active shooter training and worked with Olivette police to assess their facility for possible security risks. They also hired armed guards, which Smason compared to “having a lock on your front door.” 

“A gun is only as good or as evil as the person who uses it,” he said. “We have a primary obligation to create a safe space for the people who come to our synagogue.”

Rabbi Ze'ev Smason of Nusach Hari B'nai Zion synagogue, photographed on January 8, 2020 has worked with his congregation to implement stronger security measures in recent years. He says the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 spurred them to action.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Rabbi Ze'ev Smason of Nusach Hari B'nai Zion synagogue in Olivette, Missouri, has worked with his congregation to implement stronger security measures in recent years. He says the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 spurred his congregation to act.

The goal is to encourage congregants to keep gathering, rather than giving into fear. 

Synagogue leaders made a point to show members that they were taking the issue seriously, Smason said, by sharing specific details with them about security plans and providing training.

“If you say to someone, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got security covered; we’ve taken care of it,’ that’s probably not going to make people feel better,” he said. “That’s going to stoke their fears.”

‘I hope we never get to that point’

Not everyone agrees that guns have a place inside houses of worship, even with heightened security concerns.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis does not allow weapons of any kind on church property, including schools, churches, cemeteries and offices. 

In 2018, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders led by Archbishop Robert Carlson spoke out against a Missouri House bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons into houses of worship without permission of the clergy. 

The congregation of St. Pius V Catholic Church has considered implementing stronger safety measures in recent years, after a member was robbed in the parking lot.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
The congregation of St. Pius V Catholic Church has considered implementing stronger safety measures in recent years, after a member was robbed in the parking lot.

In a letter, Carlson said the revised law would “violate our First Amendment rights.” 

The “zero-tolerance policy” does include an exception for active and retired law enforcement officials, said Archdiocese of St. Louis multimedia manager Maria Lemakis via email. 

The Rev. Paul Niemann of St. Pius V said he respects the reasons why other faith leaders have increased their security and hired armed guards, but he believes the church should be a place of peace. 

“I think that’s more compatible with the message of Jesus than this protective approach, this warfare approach,” Niemann said. “I hope we never get to that point.”

Members of the church in south St. Louis have learned to be watchful and aware of their surroundings. Last year, a carjacker robbed a congregant in the church parking lot, prompting a discussion about whether they should increase their security measures.

Over the long term, strict security can isolate a congregation from the broader community, Niemann said. But he acknowledges that keeping a congregation safe while also remaining open and welcoming can be a balancing act. 

“We want to be a place where anybody from anywhere can come and worship with us,” he said. “You can't do that if your doors are locked, if you got people standing at the door checking IDs. That doesn’t communicate what we want to be. At the same time, we want to be safe.” 

Mufti Asif Umar, who leads the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, agrees that turning away visitors would be counter to the mission. 

“We have certain protocols in place for security, but the last thing we want is to keep the place a closed-door space,” Umar said. “We have to make sure that we welcome our neighbors. That’s the No. 1 thing.” 

Mufti Asif Umar of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, photographed on January 8, 2020, said they strive to be a welcoming place for visitors, while also ensuring the safety of their members.
Credit Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Mufti Asif Umar said the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis strives to welcome visitors.

But he said attacks on religious gatherings, such as the Christchurch shooting at two New Zealand mosques that left more than 50 people dead, must be taken seriously. 

The Islamic Foundation has strengthened its security procedures in recent years, though Umar declined to give specific details, citing safety concerns. 

“You have to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst,” he said. “We use whatever we can for safety and security — and then we leave the rest in the hands of God.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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