Open doors: Amid gun debate, Baltimore County houses of worship balance security with welcome

Zubair Ansari reads a lot of hate mail.

“Here, we just got one today,” Ansari, secretary of property management at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, casually told a reporter last week as he took out his phone and pulled up a photo of a letter entitled “Punish a Muslim Day,” which urged recipients to commit gruesome crimes against Muslims.

The Islamophobic threats the center receives throughout the year, intensified by a 2016 visit from President Barack Obama, provide Ansari, the board member responsible for security, with a daunting task.

To keep worshippers and students safe, the combined mosque, community center and day school is covered in security cameras and monitored by armed security guards. During Friday prayers, at which more than 1,000 worshippers pray each week, and during the holy month of Ramadan, Ansari said they also hire off-duty Baltimore County police officers.

The Islamic Society has had strict security for years. But in recent weeks, last month's school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has put a spotlight on safety concerns at so-called “soft targets,” such as schools and places of worship.

Churches and places of worship have also been the targets of mass shootings. In November last year, 26 people died in a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And in 2015, white supremacist Dylan Roof killed nine black parishioners in a mass shooting in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

The national discussion has led to often-controversial proposals in the Maryland legislature, like one sponsored by Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican whose district covers parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, which would allow religious organizations to give permission to congregants to carry weapons on their property without a concealed carry permit.

It also has left Baltimore County religious institutions grappling with how to balance the security of their congregations with their spiritual mandate to open their doors to strangers.

Baltimore County Police spokeswoman Jennifer Peach said that places of worship, like private schools, often take care of their own security needs, only turning to police when absolutely necessary.

Szeliga’s bill was written to address rural places of worship in particular, she said. Leaders of those congregations want to be able to designate qualified members to be armed because help from police is often 20 minutes away, Szeliga said, adding that bill is limited in scope, enabling religious leaders to control permissions to carry weapons without forcing them to do so.

“This isn’t a bill that would allow every person sitting in pew to have a gun strapped to their hip,” Szeliga said.

The bill currently has an amendment attached making it a pilot program for Harford County.

Ansari estimated that the Islamic Society spends as much as $60,000 per year on security.

"We have to work like five times as hard to keep our image in lock and step,” Ansari said. "And we probably have to spend five times the resources that others have to [on security] for that reason.”

The Rev. Ken Kovacs of Catonsville Presbyterian Church said his church also had to work hard over the years, “reflecting theologically on what welcome looks like, what hospitality looks like. He added, “It’s important for us to extend welcome.”

“You can become so cautious, you’re not welcoming to people, and that’s where you don’t want to go,” said the Rev. Nancy Kraft of Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson.

At smaller churches like Kraft’s, she said, church leaders and ushers know their congregants, and approach strangers to talk to them.

Even at a larger place like the Islamic Society, places of worship attract a lot of familiar faces.

Abdul Qadir, head of security at the Islamic Society, said that he knows the faces of those who show up at the five-times-a-day prayer and watches out for “something unusual, something not in the right place.”

But though Qadir keeps a watchful eye on those coming and going, with his gun at his hip, people are “free to come in and out.”

For other large congregations, like Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, which hosts as many as 2,600 people over four services each weekend, finding the balance between safety and openness takes a lot of planning.

“Unlike a school, which doesn’t have open doors, we’re on the other end of that continuum,” said J.P. Kahnert, whose title is pastor of operations at Grace Fellowship. “We want anyone and everyone who needs what we offer … we’re in the business of inviting people.”

Even while being welcoming, Kahnert said, “We also have to be diligent.”

At Grace Fellowship, doors are kept locked off-hours, and access to areas where children are being cared for is limited.

Volunteers and staff members, Kahnert said, are trained to respond to incidents ranging from a crying baby to an intruder. And, they have armed security “where it’s appropriate,” he said.

Kraft said that Ascension has security cameras and locks doors when not in use, but that the church has plans to amp up its security policies, possibly asking police to do a walk-through to give advice on how to prepare for different security situations.

Though anxiety around guns is heightened nationally, leaders say that individual religious institutions have varied degrees of worry.

Kovacs, at Catonsville Presbyterian, said it has not been a major concern among churchgoers or the ministers he speaks to in the Catonsville area.

“We are conscious of issues around security,” he said. “But we don’t become obsessed about it.”

And Szeliga's proposal to arm churchgoers, Kovacs said, is not the answer.

“We call our worship space a sanctuary,” Kovacs said. “I cannot imagine the thought of having concealed weapons in that space could alleviate anxiety in people.”

Kraft said that at Ascension in Towson, “I haven’t heard parishioners that are too concerned” about security during worship. Still, she personally feels it is important to think about.

Ansari, in charge of property management, said that amid anti-Islam rhetoric and threats, the community is often anxious about security issues.

Qadir, the Islamic Society head of security, said the shooting in Parkland especially put him on heightened alert. In addition to a prayer hall and gymnasium, the Islamic Society of Baltimore houses the Al-Rahmah school, a K-12 full-time day school.

“In my line of duty, you always worry every day for safety,” Qadir said.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
77°