Episcopalians balance fear with preparation in the wake of U.S. mass shootings

By Amy Sowder
Posted Apr 19, 2018

The Rev. Mike Angell, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, speaks at an April 11 ecumenical unity press conference. Photo: Fred Koenig

[Episcopal News Service] As Americans reel from the rising number of mass shootings, the possibility of such violence happening at any gathering anywhere seems more real.

To cope, Episcopalians have relied on efforts to balance preparing for the worst with keeping their faith. The most recent tragedy — the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people — mobilized youth nationwide to fight for better gun-violence prevention laws with marches and protests, Episcopal youth included.

“We’re trying very hard not to encourage hysteria, but we want to be prepared,” said the Rev. Kate Atkinson, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which is across the street from the state house in Concord, New Hampshire. “Who knows what the dangerous person will look like? We have to be vigilant but not frightened. I refuse to be frightened. But at the same time, I am responsible for my parish and I don’t want anything to happen to them.”

Numbers vary depending on how a mass shooting is defined. Often the term requires three or more deaths. Regardless, 2017 was called the deadliest year for mass killings in a decade, totaling 208 deaths shortly after the Nov. 5 shooting that killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

If the Feb. 14 school shooting is any indication, 2018 won’t be much better. Meanwhile, Episcopal leaders are striving to comfort and calm their congregations while also examining ways to prepare for the worst.

Before those 26 people were gunned down in the Texas church, the closest mass church shooting killed nine people on June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Three people died in a May 3, 2012 shooting at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland. The assumed assailant was a homeless man who used the church’s soup kitchen and who police believe committed suicide by shooting himself afterward.

The church’s warden at the time, Craig Stuart-Paul, later pledged that the parish’s ministry would continue, “and we won’t do it from behind bulletproof glass.”

Many plans, procedures and technologies are already in place, but Episcopalians are being made more aware of them. Vestries are updating their emergency plans. Some priests and bishops are participating in gun violence seminars, workshops and other trainings. Still others are fighting state gun laws.

Include gun violence in emergency plans

The Church Pension Group’s Safety & Insurance Handbook for Churches, available online, addresses what to do in an emergency involving gun violence.

Quick communication and notification are key, the handbook emphasizes. And depending on church needs and budget, leaders can implement or update their regular security measures to incorporate newer technology, such as buzzed-in entry, automated locking, camera systems and key access. A diocese with a large, metropolitan cathedral often has a security guard.

But it’s more than that.

“As recent devastating events in a wide variety of public places have demonstrated, it’s important to have plans in place to mitigate the risk of violence — and to be able to react appropriately and quickly in case something does happen,” the handbook, written in 2015, states. “You should have a violence preparedness plan, just as you have disaster preparedness plans in case of fires, floods, or tornadoes — and run drills, too, just as you would for a fire or tornado.”

In the Diocese of New Hampshire, at least four churches have hosted active shooter drills or seminars. About 120 people attended a drill on how to deal with active shooter situations at Grace Episcopal Church in Manchester on April 8.

The free drills were led by Blue-U Defense, a group of off-duty or retired law enforcement officers with training experience in preparedness for organizations including churches, New Hampshire Bishop Rob Hirschfeld told Episcopal News Service. The events were hosted by Episcopal churches and were open to people from other faith communities as well.

“I’m encouraged by people coming away from this with a sense of reasonableness; they’re less panicked, more empowered, more aware of the space they’re in and the possibilities to frustrate the intent of those who wish to do harm. And that’s good,” said Hirschfeld, a member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence.

“They’re given strategies. We don’t want our people to live in fear. As Marianne Williamson has said, ‘Fear is not a Christian habit of mind,’” he said, quoting the spiritual activist and author.

On April 11, about 45 leaders of area faith communities convened for a Civilian Response to an Active Shooter Event (CRASE) training led by local police at St. Paul’s in Concord. The training was geared toward heightened security, urging faith leaders to be wise about what doors are locked and unlocked, who’s monitoring the building, what’s happening with the children and what official response protocol is, according to Atkinson, the rector.

The first piece of advice used to be to hide, but now it’s ADD: avoid, deny and defend, Atkinson said the CRASE experts told them. The first line of action is to try to escape. If that’s not possible, deny access by hiding, barricading and calling 911. If the shooter does reach you, defend yourself however you can, especially as a group.

After that initial seminar, Concord police officers are continuing the training by arranging site visits with each participating religious group to tour the buildings and give tips, Atkinson said. The church safety policy discourages people from bringing in concealed weapons, Atkinson said.

The downtown church serves many visitors in its food pantry, thrift store and clothing bank. Those ministries mean a higher percentage of homeless and mentally ill visitors. But as Atkinson has realized, you never know what the shooter will look like, so you can’t stop doing God’s will.

“A lot of the people we deal with on a daily basis can be frightening, but they’re also frightened, and they need our help,” she told ENS.

At St. Peter’s in Carson City, Nevada, on March 9, representatives from the Carson City Sheriff’s and Fire departments met with parishioners and discussed church safety and active shooter situations, as well as emergency medical situations, fires and earthquakes. The training brought calm assurance to people, Nevada Bishop Dan Edwards told ENS.

Donna Bernert, a member of St. Francis’ Episcopal Church in Eureka, Missouri, organized members of her parish to staff a Lock It for Love booth at the annual Eureka Days celebration on Sept. 8-9. Fifty gun locks were distributed free of charge. The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has partnered with Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, a St. Louis advocacy organization, in supporting Lock It for Love. Photo: Episcopal Diocese of Missouri

Part of planning for emergencies involves prevention methods, such as distributing gun locks so the guns don’t get in the wrong hands.

St. James Episcopal Church in Keene, New Hampshire, has a social justice ministry that brokered an arrangement between local law enforcement agencies and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an National Rifle Association-affiliated, Second Amendment advocacy group based in Newtown, Connecticut. Despite what Hirschfeld called the chasm between the church and the NRA, the foundation will make these gun locks available to 15 police stations in the Monadnock region of southwestern New Hampshire, he said. It’s called Project ChildSafe, a free national program.

“It’s a little thread across the chasm,” Hirschfeld said.

Carrying guns inside churches — legally

Parallel to the controversial arm-the-teachers solution in schools, proponents of more freedom to carry firearms inside churches say it will enable parishioners to defend themselves and protect others. Otherwise, church members are sitting ducks, they say. That thinking has influenced lawmakers.

Yet the Episcopalians ENS spoke to said trained police often miss their intended targets, so inexperienced civilians will have even less chance of aiming correctly and can make the fatal mistake of shooting an innocent bystander. Plus, when more people are wielding guns, it’s often difficult to tell who the “bad guy” is when law enforcement does arrive and needs to make split-second decisions.

Some Episcopalians, such as those in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, are grappling with either existing state laws or proposed amendments that allow firearms in church.

On April 11, Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and other Episcopal leaders joined Roman Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Baptist and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America leaders at a press conference decrying the proposed Missouri House Bill 1936 amending a law to expand where concealed weapons are allowed, extending the allowance to churches.

Missouri churches have historically been gun-free zones.

As the law states now, a person must receive special permission from clergy to carry a concealed weapon on church property. The new law would allow someone to carry a concealed weapon inside a church or other religious institution unless a sign banning weapons is prominently displayed. The sign must be at least 11 by 14 inches with writing that is at least 1 inch tall, according to the bill.

The Rev. Mike Angell helped organize the ecumenical press conference.

This proposed gun legislation has galvanized a rare show of unity among faith communities that normally disagree, he said. The various participating faith leaders argue that the proposed state amendment is a radical expansion of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, at the expense of the First Amendment right of religious freedom. Throughout history, religious groups have fought wars over what was displayed inside houses of worship, Angell said. And to have to post government-regulation signs in order to preserve the sanctuary of these faith centers is “offensive,” he said, and the faith communities were not even consulted during the legislative process.

“We do believe people have a right to responsible gun ownership. Several bishops are gun owners,” Angell told ENS. “But this is a radical redefinition of what the Second Amendment means. It would also allow guns in day care centers, bars and schools. That’s problematic. We don’t operate a bar, but we operate all those others.”

Angell is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, which rents out some of its facilities to a children’s music school, AA groups and other community activities. The vestry is examining new emergency plans and active-shooter training possibilities.

“We’re looking at all sorts of ways to update those emergencies procedures. We’ve been asked by some of our tenants, really since the Parkland school shooting and the Texas church shooting,” he said.

As the bishop’s deputy for gun violence prevention, the Rev. Marc Smith uses his 10 years’ experience as the former president of the Missouri Hospital Association to come at the problem from a public health perspective. He’s been working on six initiatives since his appointment almost three years ago.

The Rev. Anne Kelsey and the Rev. Marc Smith, the Missouri bishop’s deputy for gun violence prevention, protest with signs during the St. Louis March for Our Lives on March 24. Photo: The Rev. Paula Hartsfield

While other Episcopal churches and dioceses across the United States have undertaken several similar initiatives such as awareness campaigns and gun lock distributions, two of Smith’s cutting-edge initiatives, which he hasn’t noticed elsewhere, involve training clergy and creating a curriculum.

First, a partnership with Washington University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and the Walker Leadership Institute at Eden Seminary has helped develop and present seminars to equip clergy and laity to care for the victims of gun violence. Smith has conducted seminars regularly with crime victim care organizations, as well as seminars at Eden Theological Seminary and Concordia Seminary.

Second, Smith is creating a six-module curriculum for use by faith communities to explore the many forms of violence in American culture and the church’s responsibility for responding to them: violence in scripture, America as a culture of violence, gun violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence, bullying and suicide, and reconciliation and forgiveness. He’s invited experts in each area to share their knowledge via instructional videos, and the curriculum will be online.

Smith also wrote a litany for victims of gun violence, available online.

In November 2012, Bishop Edward J. Konieczny issued a policy for every organization in the Diocese of Oklahoma, in direct contrast to the just-passed Oklahoma Self-Defense Act/Open Carry Law. The law says no person, property owner, tenant, employer or business entity can make a policy prohibiting anyone, except a convicted felon, from carrying a weapon on premises.

That did not stop Konieczny, a former Southern California police officer.

He wrote: “As such, after careful review, the policy of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma is to prohibit any weapon inside any building owned or occupied by the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, Episcopal churches, Episcopal schools or institutions, and Episcopal camp and conference centers.”

The bishop’s exceptions included government employees acting in their capacity to do so, security officers for special events, and organized training or sporting events such as skeet shooting. Any other exception would require prior written approval from the bishop.

Konieczny has his own concealed weapon permit, and told the crowd at the April 2014 Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace: An Episcopal Gathering to Challenge the Epidemic of Violence conference hosted in his diocese that he has been called “the gun-toting bishop.”

“By any definition of the word, the frequency of violent acts in our society is of epidemic proportion,” he told the conference members. “I am not willing to accept that we are destined to suffer the tragedies that have plagued our society. Instead, I am convinced that we can change judgmental attitudes, intolerant behaviors and the violence in our society.”

After the Feb. 25, 2016, shootings in Hesston and Newton, Kansas, that killed three people, Episcopal Diocese of Kansas’ then-Bishop Dean Wolfe and Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas Bishop Michael Milliken issued a pastoral directive banning firearms from Episcopal churches in the state, unless they are carried by designated law enforcement officials in the line of duty.

In a letter sent to all churches, the bishops said the state law amendments reversed long-standing law and practice. The changes allowing anyone to bring guns into a church, they wrote, “unnecessarily endanger the citizens of our state and the members of our parishes.”

Protecting the young

Churches often have day care centers and primary schools on their premises, which call to mind how the responses of adults can affect some of the most vulnerable populations.

Nevada Bishop Dan Edwards said the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and school shooting in Parkland, Florida, have had more impact on churches in his diocese than an Oct. 1 shooting at a Las Vegas country music concert that killed 58 people. That mass shooting caused an outpouring of compassion, he told ENS, but the Parkland school shooting mobilized youth across his diocese in marches and protests. At the Las Vegas March for Our Lives in March, survivors of the October shooting, as well as gun violence victims of domestic abuse and LGBTQ hate crimes, spoke.

Prevention of gun violence and caring intervention for its victims are key to maintaining a safe, holy sanctuary, Episcopal leaders say. They’re taking action, while keeping in mind their higher calling in the Christian faith. They must stay reasonable, these priests and bishops told ENS.

It’s good to remember that there is an extremely low likelihood of people being killed or injured in mass shootings, and even more so in churches; they’re taking far greater risk getting in their cars and driving on the highway, Edwards said.

“That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to us, but we live in faith. Our call in facing violence is to respond nonviolently,” Edwards said. “The most frequent command Jesus gave us was ‘Do not be afraid.’ Not that we shouldn’t feel fear, but don’t live in fear and let it have you, to control our lives.

“Instead, let our faith control our lives.”

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at amysowderepiscopalnews@gmail.com.


Comments (7)

  1. Larry Waters says:

    Unfortunately protests and placards are not going to stop an evil and/or deranged person from mass shootings. I am against gun violence too, but if a mass shooter enters the church that I attend, “wishin and hoping” is not going to stop that person. Since God gave me a brain, I choose to use it and that means that I will have self-defense with me. If my church bans that, then I will likely not attend the church. As I have said in this forum, if guns are ever outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

  2. Doug Desper says:

    I don’t get the humor of the photo of the bishop’s deputy for gun violence prevention: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a priest with a poster.” This lowers the IQ of the gun ownership for personal protection discussion by many points.

  3. M. J. Wise says:

    State laws that prohibit weapons in churches are offensive and an infringement on the rights of religious congregations to determine what is or isn’t permitted in their own sanctuaries, and at best such laws represent an absolutely worthless government promise backed up with nothing. I put it in the same bin with a law prohibiting having any gun in one’s house. I think all but the most ardent anti-gun activists would agree that’s unreasonable.

    I also don’t think the bishops should be personally banning weapons for individual congregations. A blanket weapons ban is a check that the bishop simply can’t cash and is little other than wishful thinking on his or her part. It’s the ultimate in feeling good and accomplishing nothing.

  4. mike geibel says:

    With respect to Churches, “private carry” of firearms is an unsettling and unacceptable proposal. Maybe in rural areas its no big deal, but few congregants in my church would feel comfortable knowing that the person sitting next to them in the pew may be armed.

    The reference in the article to “concealed carry” may needlessly alarm some readers—allowing “concealed carry” does not necessarily mean that the average congregant can conceal a pistol in her purse and go to Church. It is illegal in most states for someone to carry a concealed handgun when inside or outside of a church or in any place open to the public, without a “concealed carry permit” issued by local authorities and after a showing of substantial need and adequate training. Concealed carry permits are very difficult to obtain in my state.

    Most full time police officers, FBI agents and other law enforcement officers are required to carry a weapon at all times, usually concealed when off duty. A prohibition on weapons (guns and knives) on church grounds should be accompanied by exceptions for law enforcement or the congregant who has a license for “concealed carry” a firearm, or they would have to leave his or her handgun in the trunk of their car, or not attend church at all. Adopting a “no guns allowed” posture may make a pastor feel politically correct and safer, but it is pretty foolish to discourage attendance by members who may be law enforcement officers.

    Most people would probably avoid a church if they knew other parishioners may be “packing,” and there are helpful alternatives. Private Jewish schools and synagogues in my community have long ago increased security and safety by “hardening the target.” Gates and kiosks, some with armed security, restrict access, and concrete walls and fences were constructed to deflect vehicle impacts. Even hostile plantings (bougainvillea plants have long, sharp thorns) can make intrusion difficult and painful.

    The article is a little myopic in its focus solely on “guns.” During the September 11 attacks, 2,996 people were killed and more than 6,000 others wounded—airplanes, not guns were used. On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs were detonated near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring several hundred others, including 16 who lost limbs—again, no guns were used. On July 14, 2016 at a Bastille Day fireworks display in Nice, France, an Islamic fanatic drove a 20-ton rental truck into the crowd, striking and killing 86 people—private gun ownership is severely restricted in France. On November 1, 2017, a pickup truck rampage left at least eight people dead in lower Manhattan. Unquestionably, less than 1% of Muslims are fanatical murderers. But the same is true of gun owners—less than 1% of those who own semi-automatic rifles use those weapons to commit murder and mayhem.

    Sadly, the internet, violence in movies and game videos, early release of felons, increased use of mind-altering drugs, and the rise in secularism attended by loss of moral values, have all led to the modern reality that average citizens are increasingly subject to random violence and murder at the hands of criminal psychopaths. A daily reminder of the lethality of the depraved mind are the “tamper-proof” sealed containers on products found at the grocery story—all a result of some sociopaths’ desire for murder and chaos by contaminating everyday products with arsenic (rat poison) and other commercially available, lethal poisons.

    It is not the availability of firearms that makes people psychopaths. A weapons ban will not stop the religious fanatic, the Marxist anarchist, the anti-social extremist, the hardened criminal, or the mentally deranged Frankensteins in our society from finding some means to kill and inflict harm. And there should be respect for local autonomy. Reasonable gun restrictions in populated cities may be Constitutionally valid, but the same restrictions may make little sense in Smalltown, Wyoming where the definition of a drive-by-shooting is hunting jackrabbits from a pick-up truck.

    There is no global panacea. Individual education and vigilance—simply being aware of our surroundings and suspicious persons and packages—are important. The article encourages individual responsibility and education about “gun safety” to avoid accidents, and correctly advises pastors to consult and use the expertise of local police and security companies for planning so that each church can consider its own measures based upon their own needs and level of risk.

  5. M. J. Wise says:

    “Churches have for centuries been sanctuaries. Weapons were always left outside. Real life is not like the old Hollywood movies where John Wayne or whomever shot the bad guy with one shot and nobody else got hurt. Do we really want the “Gun fight at OK Corral” in our churches?”

    Unfortunately, we do not get to decide the terms of engagement with mass murderers. I am sure that you would call 911 to report a mass shooting at your church. You know what? That will bring gobs and gobs of people with badges and guns to your location. So nothing you’re saying really makes any sense to me.

    ” It is interesting to me that most of these “mass shootings” have taken place in fairly affluent neighborhoods.”

    Mass shootings are rare. Most shootings and shooting deaths happen in poor, urban areas. When poor minorities die in urban areas (which happens greatly disproportionately in this country) no one outside the local news cares. In Illinois in 2016, for example, black people died from gun homicides at a rate six times that of whites.

  6. Bill Louis says:

    It’s naive to think “it won’t happen in my church”. Mass shootings are rare but they happen. See something, say something has failed to work in some of the recent shooting cases where friends and family knew the shooter was a possible danger but they did nothing about it. In the most recent case, the shooter was known to both the police and the school administration to be a danger but the authorities did nothing about it. We haven’t really figured out how to identify and address mentally deranged people. Until then we are left with protecting ourselves from them.

    The average shooting is over in minutes or even seconds. When the police arrive too late all that is left is to clean up and investigate. A church being a “sanctuary” will not stop a determined, deranged person from carrying out his or her murderous plan. Wishing “it won’t happen” is not a deterrent.

    My church is in denial. Although there is no written policy or state law prohibiting legal carry of a firearm in church It would certainly be an issue if it is discovered that someone carries in church yet the church leadership refuses to put even the simplest safeguards in place such as locking the doors during the service. Instead we are told to “run, hide or fight.” but there are no drills or practice for those suggestions. If there was any kind of practice I doubt many of our elderly congregants are physically capable of doing any of those things in a stressful situation.

    There are no off duty law enforcement officers in our congregation. The church leadership has been resistant to suggestions to secure the church during services. So the only protection against an active shooter is to have trained, licensed concealed carry people in church.

    It’s unlikely congregation will know if someone skilled is carrying concealed unless that person(s) makes it known. Personally I would feel much more comfortable knowing they are sitting next to me in church and hope and pray that kind of protection is never needed. Tragically its a reality that in any active shooter situation people are going get hurt. I would much rather have a “gunfight at the OK corral” where the shooter is neutralized than have my entire church family mass murdered. To allow an active shooter to go unopposed is suicide. Even Peter carried a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane.

  7. Mary Koenig says:

    I am blessed to be a member of the Episcopal Church. We seem to be in the midst of whatever is going on in our society. That is also true of other countries, than America. We take action, big or small, to help address the problem.
    I think the first step taken, calming the panic most of us feel, and the helplessness, was the best idea. Everything else that is done is encouraging. It doesn’t make you feel stuck with a horror you have no power over. We know Jesus Christ has the power over all situations, and I believe He will guide us in our efforts to do all we can to end this violence in our nation.
    I also think guns, especially in church, should never be allowed. I think it would only create an atmosphere of more fear.

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