By Patsy Isenberg
A sign of the times, after mass shootings in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and Christchurch New Zealand, is increasing concern about the safety of faith-based places of worship.
That fear was reflected and acknowledged at last week’s 3rd Annual Resiliency and Environmental Justice Summit, where 50 people attended a workshop titled “Providing Safe Physical Spaces in Faith-Based Organizations.”
The summit in general, sponsored by Flint ReCAST (Resiliency in Communities After Stress and Trauma) covered many aspects of daily life that are part of resilience including how trauma affects individuals and communities, what resources are available, environmental health, both physical and mental, and environmental justice.
Fear, it was noted, can be a deterrent to resiliency–even in what used to be considered space spaces.
At the early morning session in the gym at Flint Southwestern Academy, Pastor Greg Timmons of Calvary United Methodist Church in Flint introduced a childhood friend of his, Mark James of Panther Protection Services of Atlanta, Georgia.
He said he invited James, who has done protective services on five continents in more than 35 countries, to “help us better secure our safe spaces” and address ways people can reduce the likelihood of tragedy occurring in their places of worship.
When James asked attendees to to say what they wanted to get out of the session, their answers ranged from finding a balance between being welcoming, to being wary, to learning what people affiliated with church organizations can do to provide a safe environment.
James covered what the predator might look like and what challenges exist within churches. He said African-Americans are the most frequent target and the weapon of choice is most often a handgun.
Drawing from FBI statistics in 2017, James said 49 percent of biased-based attacks on the general population are committed against African Americans, 17 percent against whites.
However, 66 percent of biased-based attacks on places of worship are committed against African-American congregations. He said the perpetrators in 2017 were 46 percent white and 21 percent African-American, 91 percent males. He said in the last 10 years, 73 percent of hate-based crimes came from right-wing extremists, most often U.S. born.
He said 16 percent of attacks on houses of worship are domestic issues that spill over into the church, and 22 percent of the time there’s an affiliation between the attacker and the congregation.
Why places of worship struggle with the issue
At one point, James asked, “Why do you think over time we continue to have challenges with safety and security in our houses of worship?” Some suggested reasons were:
“We’ve become complacent.”
“We’re soft targets.” (To this James explained “soft targets” are typically places where “there’s a high concentration of people but a low ability to repel a threat.”
“We don’t believe it can happen here.”
“We’re in the people-welcoming people business and don’t think we should put up barriers.”
He urged concerned citizens to move “from an emotional discussion to a fact-based discussion–because you can put together better plans if you understand what the real issues are.”
James did not at the outset suggest cameras, lock-down procedures, arming the building, guards or any of those types of measures one might think would be on his agenda. He said he wouldn’t give a “cookie cutter way of how to protect the congregation.”
Instead, he advised, “What I want to give you is a process to think about what are the things and issues that my church faces. So that we decide what are the best counter measures or safety measures that your church needs to have in place because everybody’s church, everybody’s synagogue can be very, very different. So what is the plan that fits best for your organization?”
He pointed out how attackers usually plan carefully trying to “outsmart” the groups being targeted. Cars are one “weapon” he brought up that people generally might not expect.
Risk mitigation, not management
And he urged congregations to try to prevent trouble before it happens.
“Think about the Secret Services model,” he said. “They focus on a risk mitigation model, not a risk management model. Risk management says, at the point of crisis, what do we do? At that point it’s already too late. I want to think about risk mitigation. How do we get in front of the crisis?”
That is one reason he spent quite a bit of time talking about the kind of people and behaviors that might signal suspicious behavior.
What kind of person might be a potential perpetrator? In addition to the statistics offered above, the attackers often have progressed from low self-esteem into “emergent aggression,” gradually withdrawing social, losing empathy for others, becoming secretive and cutthroat, and might eventually sell their belongings.
Describing the signals of, “emerging aggression,” he said, “I always tell people, monsters start out as gremlins. So if we can catch them in the gremlin stage, we often have time to do interventions before they turn into full-blown monsters.”
Incorporating protection in a “welcoming embrace”
James pointed out how to incorporate protections while “welcoming people,” demonstrating through role-playing with a man from the audience how to greet a new parishioner warmly while still “checking him out.”
Embracing the person while placing a hand on various common places someone might have a concealed weapon, for example, would also give the opportunity to feel for a weapon on the front part of the belt as well. A greeter also could determine a person’s “handedness” (left or right) by noticing which wrist they might be wearing a watch on. And, if still suspicious, sitting next to the person during the service could provide reassurance and protection.
While most of James’ talk centered around getting in front of a possible crisis, he also offered suggestions for what to do if a crisis does occur, including the importance of stopping a victim from bleeding out, what to do if trapped, and the best ways to audibly alert rescuers.
“We believe in the sanctity of the church and we expect everybody else to believe what we believe. But unfortunately, that is not the case,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the name of James’s company. It is Panther Protection Services. Also, 49 percent of biased-based attacks in the country are directed at African-Americans, based on 2017 FBI statistics, not 29 percent.
EVM staff writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson contributed to this report and can be reached at email@example.com.