For many, where they practice their religion is a space for sanctity and peace. But as violence at churches, synagogues, mosques, and all manner of houses of worship make national headlines, local organizations must confront worshipers’ fears while keeping their doors open and inviting.
For some churches, responding to this fear includes creating armed security details.
Such was the case at a church in White Settlement, Texas, that was attacked on Dec. 29 by an armed individual. Last month, Governor Greg Abbott awarded the Governor’s Medal of Courage to Jack Wilson, the armed churchgoer who shot the church’s attacker.
With each new story of violence, religious organizations must think about how they want to balance safety with the mission.
“A lot of our church members are law-abiding, gun-toting Americans, so we do allow and encourage our members to be armed,” said Anthony Manzelli, children’s pastor at Gateway Church of The Woodlands.
Gateway, like the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, has a security team in place that monitors the grounds of the church during services. The church encourages members to take the license to carry classes and has even hosted the training. Men’s outings organized by the church often include target practice and shooting “just to make sure that everybody’s sharp and on their game.”
The shooting in White Settlement was of particular concern for Gateway because the aggressor at the West Freeway Church, before returning with a gun, had arrived looking for money and was told that the church could not provide that, but he could be helped at the food pantry. This is the same policy that Gateway has.
Safety efforts have doubled, Manzelli said, due to a seeming rise in violence.
“You can’t really go a week anymore without hearing of some sort of a tragedy or an event that’s happened.”
The research that Manzelli has done indicates that when people are greeted at the door and helped that dangerous situations are much less likely to escalate, so they make it a priority to greet everyone before services begin. The church has worked with several local law enforcement agencies for facility security and training and has consulted with a private security team to tour the facility looking for possible vulnerabilities.
“We have more cameras than I can count,” Manzelli said.
As a church with a school attached to it, Manzelli said their security measures have to take into account any potential threats to the church attendees as well as the students, which means the active shooter scenarios are considered for both.
“We’re a church, so we want our doors to be open and unlocked for people to come in, but because the times have changed we have to be very aware,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by other religious organizations as well.
“We advise them that God will protect us,” said Imam Rihabi Mohamed of The Islamic Center of The Woodlands, about what he tells members who are afraid. “We trust God, and at the same time we also cooperate with our administration.”
The center is part of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, an organization of mosques in the Houston area. The safety and security committee of the ISGH regularly works with law enforcement to keep their facilities safe, even meeting with the FBI on an annual basis. Right now all ISGH mosques are being evaluated by law enforcement to look for opportunities to make security upgrades.
“The organization itself recognizes what’s going on not only in the U.S. but they’re recognizing what’s going on around the globe,” said Roger Yelton, Associate Director of the North Zone for ISGH. “It doesn’t really matter what faith, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a public school, the concern is still that vulnerable areas and situations that we need to guard against.”
Yelton said there have been policy changes made in the last year to address concerns that the ISGH community brought to the organization, and they have worked to build stronger relationships with other religious organizations. For better or worse, fear is something that they can unite over.
“We are one family and all of us belong to God, he created us all,” Rihabi said. “And he created us out of mercy and out of love.”
As the faith leader, he explained that he believes it is his job to spread the word of peace, and that followers of the holy books should remember there are 113 chapters of the Quran that start with “In the name of God the most merciful.”
“It gives us a strong message that we have to apply and follow his instructions,” Rihabi said.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg has only been with Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands for a few months but the issue of safety at his synagogues is hardly new.
“For most decades that I’ve been a rabbi we would go on trips to Europe and we would see the kinds of security at a synagogue in Europe and feel sad for them,” he said. But ever since a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in 1999 synagogues across the country started adopting much stricter safety measures.
The synagogue has a security plan that Goldberg said he was very impressed with when he arrived seven months ago, considering limited resources. But even the best-laid plans can’t take into account every possible scenario. It’s something he’s acutely aware of.
Beth Shalom, unlike Gateway, does not allow its members to carry guns in the facility. Members of the synagogue have talked to him about changing this policy (which is set by the congregation, not the rabbi), even bringing it up right after the incident in White Settlement.
“But the next day’s news might be ‘Innocent person shot by Good Samaritan who missed,’” he explained. “Then what do we have?”
Beth Shalom works closely with local law enforcement to consult on safety issues and maintain an ongoing relationship. Dealing with safety issues is something Goldberg knows is part of his job. He’ll tell you, with absolutely no hesitation, that he expected it to be part of his work. It’s why he maintains a good relationship with law enforcement professionals.
“I can’t say enough about how grateful I am for the people who protect us and allow us to exercise our first amendment right,” he said.
Security is an ongoing conversation at Beth Shalom, Goldberg said, not just when something bad happens. Keeping people safe, planning where they can, must be balanced with the need to keep the doors, and arms, open. After all, that’s what faith is about.