Why it’s so hard to talk about church security

At Crosspointe Church, a nondenominational church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, volunteers with black shirts and concealed weapons patrol the parking lot and stand unobtrusively in the margins during services and church activities.

They are called the Watchmen, a security team put together by Pastor Tracy Pounders and his family. The presence of armed security in a place of worship is an unsettling dissonance for many, but at Crosspointe, they are part of the larger ministry, and their origins are distinctly personal.

One Sunday morning, years ago, Pounders received a call from an unidentified man. “He had just gotten out of prison, he wanted us to give him some money,” his wife, Sylvia Pounders, told HLN. Her husband told the man they could give him food but didn’t make a practice of just giving out money. “That made him mad,” she said. “And he threatened to come and shoot the pastor. He threatened to come and shoot my husband.”

Luckily, nothing ever happened, but the threat stayed with the Pounderses. What could they do if threats like that came again?

“We take it very seriously,” says Sylvia Pounders, who is also the head of business administration at the church. She says with the history of attacks at houses of worship in the U.S., the Watchmen have turned out to be a logical, though unfortunate, necessity.

Unthinkable, but not unprecedented

On Wednesday, a gunman opened fire in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people died, including the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Two others were injured.

Religious and political leaders expressed shock and dismay that such a massacre could occur in a church, a place of supposed sanctuary. Though unthinkable, violent attacks on houses of worship are certainly not unprecedented. A pastor was shot and killed during a service in a Phoenix church in 2014. Another was killed in 2013 in Louisiana while the choir was singing hymns. Two people were killed and seven injured in a Tennessee Unitarian Universalist church in 2008.

And it’s not just Christian churches. A shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012 left six dead and four wounded. In 2014, a gunman killed three people in two separate shootings on the campus of a Jewish community center in Kansas.

How do you protect a place rooted in faith and safety, but left vulnerable to evils outside its walls?

‘Does it feel like you have no faith?’

“But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”

— Nehemiah 4:7-9

When John Ojeisekhoba talks to church leaders reluctant to explore security solutions, he often references the book of Nehemiah, the same book and the same passages the Pounderses cite when talking about their church’s Watchmen. Ojeisekhoba is a security consultant specializing in churches and other locations of peaceful activity. He is the CEO of J&O Emergency Management, a company that consults with places of worship across the country. Ojeisekhoba says that to his clients, the issue of security is as much a spiritual one as it is logistical.

“I ask (my clients), ‘Do you feel like if you put a plan in place, does it feel like you have no faith?’ ” he says. “And that’s where they get stuck. … For a lot of churches, it’s awkward.”

Ojeisekhoba says it’s difficult for leaders to incorporate security into their ministry because it introduces fear and doubt in a place that’s supposed to be sacred and protected. That’s where Nehemiah comes in.

In the Old Testament scripture, Nehemiah is employed by a King within the Persian Empire. He is asked to go to Jerusalem, the capital of the province of Judah and the most important Jewish city, and help rebuild the walls around the city to keep attackers out and citizens safe. He does so, despite constant threats from the cities’ enemies. He then sets guards at the walls and gates, and tells them God will empower them in case of an attack.

“Nehemiah put some plan in place,” Ojeisekhoba says. “And that’s what I direct (church leaders) to. Look in the Scripture that you use to preach, and use it in context, so you can get over that fear.”

Ojeisekhoba insists it is “definitely” necessary for houses of worship to consider their security. Whatever the faith of its attendants, Ojeisekhoba points out that religious places are actually uniquely vulnerable. “You have a massive number of people in one location in one time,” he says. “If I were to be a shooter, that is a high-risk environment.”

It is not easy for congregations and their leaders to contend with this horrible irony. Most faiths believe their God will protect them. It’s hard to accept that isn’t always enough.

“Church leaderships think that if they do these things, that it looks as if they don’t believe that God will protect them,” Ojeisekhoba says. “But what about all of those other churches (where tragedy struck)? Didn’t they have faith as well?”

‘The reality of living in a fallen universe’

In the coming days and weeks, we will hear a lot about gun control. President Obama has already called for stricter regulation. Conversely, we may hear about laws like Georgia’s Safe Carry Protection Act, a hotly debated 2014 bill that allows guns in some churches — as well as some schools and other public places — in the interest of self-defense. Other state laws, like those in Michigan, effectively ban guns from church properties.

It’s not just about laws, either. Individual churches can elect to ban firearms from their premises, or elect to lift firearm bans if they are in states or municipalities that employ them. It is a shifting mosaic of choice, risk and consequence.

Father Edward Fride was one religious leader who fought to support open carry gun laws in Michigan in 2014. To him, he and the other members of his Catholic parish cannot turn a blind eye to the violence of the world in favor of perfect sanctuary.

“It is very common for Christians to simply assume that … because they know the Lord Jesus, everything will always be fine and nothing bad can happen to them and their families,” he told the Christian Post. “Those who have followed the Lord Jesus for more than 20 minutes, however, have often experienced … that the reality of living in a fallen universe can be very different.”

Is this where faith and reality are forced to meet — in gun laws, armed guards and emergency plans?

Whatever the answer is, the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is forcing religious leaders to try to find it. Ojeisekhoba says his company has already received an influx of calls from concerned church leaders looking for advice.

In North Carolina, Sylvia Pounders says her congregation is “heartbroken,” and such events underscore the need for programs like Crosspointe’s Watchmen. Still, she says no church should be faulted for being vulnerable. Even her church may not have given a thought to security were it not directly threatened.

“You shouldn’t have to have security in a church,” Pounders says. “So I certainly don’t blame them for not having it.”

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