It’s a situation few church leaders expect: Members of their congregation staring down the barrel of a gun in their own house of worship.
But that scenario — typically one considered by mega churches and those in law enforcement — became reality in June as a self-described white supremacist gunned down nine people inside Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the weeks since the shooting, churches across the nation have come under fire, most recently this past weekend in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Thankfully there were no injuries in either case.
But this week — in Rock Hill — people of all faith flavors, black and white, packed the worship center at First Baptist Church for a lengthy seminar taught by Rock Hill police officers about the risks and realities that come when large groups gather in the Lord’s house.
“Now we’re looking at saving lives a different way,” says Rock Hill police Lt. Tim Ayers, a 20-year law enforcement veteran. Ayers’ career has taken him through the city’s patrol and detective divisions, where he spent much of his career investigating homicides. Now, he leads the department’s Community Services division.
“I’ve had a number of pastors come to me in recent months who are packing in the pulpit,” he says, of pastors that have recently obtained their concealed carry permit.
Thursday’s two-hour seminar touched on how churches can employ their own volunteer security teams, and what type of response to expect in the event of a critical incident.
“When police show up, we don’t know who the bad guy is or the good guys is,” Ayers says, noting that civilians attempting to help in the event of a church shooting — and even sworn officers attending services with their families off-duty — are both challenges that need to be planned in advance.
Regardless of the situation, off-duty officers know when the responding officers arrive, “unless they pull out credentials [the off-duty officer] knows to put their weapon down until someone identifies them,” Ayers says. But private citizens, carrying because they can, could be mistaken for the suspect.
“We don’t know who the good guy is or who the bad guy is,” Ayers says. “When the cavalry shows up…let us handle it. ”
Following Thursday’s session which, was only open to church leaders, individual churches now have the option of developing a customized security plan with the police department. And unlike professional studies or plans offered by commercial firms, the Rock Hill police department will offer the service free of charge.
Churches, like Rev. Seth Crosby’s TLC Ministries in Rock Hill, have been on heightened alert since the June shootings. Crosby, who is also a chaplain for the police department, says balancing security and outreach is difficult.
“It’s a thin line you walk,” Crosby says. “We’re welcoming people in. And now you have to see who you’re welcoming in because as we look at the world, we say, ‘come as you are.’ But we don’t want them to come as they are if they are coming to do harm.”
But by themselves, Crosby says, his congregation has become more aware of their surroundings.
“I’ve seen some of the older ladies never pay any attention when a door opens. Now, everybody turns.”