The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway says it’s the duty of any church to do all it can to ensure the safety of its congregants, so he has long had security cameras in place throughout Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore.
But after yet another mass shooting left 26 people dead at a Texas church Sunday — the worst such incident at a place of worship in American history — the church and community leader is feeling a special urgency.
Hathaway was hard at work Monday on an email to other local religious leaders to urge action across denominational lines on matters of security.
“It’s tragic to think that this anger, this violence, is now invading our sacred spaces, the places where we try to foster peace and reflection, especially in a country that espouses religious freedom,” he says. “But this is clearly a fact of life now. We must think about security over and against our freedoms.”
As a member of the Baltimore Interfaith Coalition, Hathaway has long conferred with the leaders of other denominations on matters of community concern.
Last year he traveled with Archbishop William E. Lori of the Roman Catholic Archidiocese of Baltimore, Imam Earl El-Amin of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, and other faith leaders to visit Pope Francis in Rome and discuss the societal inequalities laid bare by the death of Freddie Gray in Baltmore in 2015.
He said he planned to contact Lori, El-Amin, other Protestant leaders and Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, and others to propose they meet to discuss how they might be able to approach the state and federal governments for funding — and how to initiate safety practices at the congregational level.
The massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, comes about two and a half years after a gunman entered an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and shot nine worshippers to death, all of them African-American.
“It’s clearly not a matter of geography or race anymore — this evil can happen anywhere, and we need to take whatever measures we can to address that fact,” Hathaway says.
The prospect of gunmen entering public spaces is frightening enough, even in an age when mass shootings have become tragically commonplace.
The idea of would-be killers attacking churches, synagogues and mosques — places expected to provide sanctuary from humanity’s darker practices — inspires a special dread.
Add in that the faith traditions tend to encourage kindness to strangers, and that they host gatherings of people in numbers at regularly scheduled times, and it becomes clear that houses of worship face a uniquely complex set of challenges.
Faith leaders in Baltimore have approached the challenges differently.
It has been five years since a gunman entered the offices St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City and opened fire, killing two employees — the church’s co-rector, the Rev. Marguerite-Kohn, and longtime parish administrator Brenda Brewington — before taking his own life.
The man, Douglas Franklin Jones, had been living in woods on the property and making use of the church’s food pantry, but killed the two in revenge.
Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, told clergy in the diocese at the time that “our churches will not become armed fortresses,” urging parish leaders and members instead to get involved in the larger effort to stem the “rising tide in the epidemic of gun violence.”
Sutton has continued pressing that mission as a founding member of Bishops United Against Gun Violence, a group of more than 70 Episcopal bishops working to curtail gun violence in the United States.
The Rev. Dan Webster, canon for evangelism and the media for the diocese, says a group of clergy is working on a resolution for the next diocesan convention calling for all churches to become gun-free zones.
“We are not of one mind on this, or any issue,” he says. “But we are trying to figure out how [best] to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the midst of a violent and fearful society.”
Baltimore’s Jewish community, on the other hand, has worked proactively for years to provide physical security for synagogues, community centers and schools — “since before 9/11,” says Libit.
The Baltimore Jewish Council employs a former Baltimore City police officer, Keith Tiedemann, to spearhead security efforts throughout the region, Libit says. Tiedemann has coordinated efforts with local, state and federal law enforcement authorities to enhance safety at the sites, an effort that was intensified during the spate of bomb threats against Jewish sites last year.
The Jewish community has invested millions of dollars, Libit says, providing such measures as security cameras, card-coded entries, and armed and unarmed security guards at synagogues and other sites over the past few years. And the council has helped Jewish and Muslim institutions gain federal funding through grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
Libit believes the new measures have not compromised the ability of synagogues and other Jewish institutions to provide the kind of welcome members expect.
“Do I wish that we didn’t have to go to such lengths to provide security? Yes,” Libit says. “But those are, unfortunately, the times we live in.”
Carl Chinn, a church security consultant based in Colorado, says such measures make sense at a time when assaults on houses of worship are likely to continue. As director of the nonprofit Faith Based Security Network, Chinn has worked with churches in more than 40 states on their security operations.
He has long counseled the use of security cameras as well as having a few congregational leaders and members trained to be able to spot unusual and possibly dangerous behaviors in individuals they don’t recognize.
And if a church feels comfortable providing armed security — and can afford it — Chinn is in favor, as he says shooters like the gunman in Texas are determined to kill and probably cannot be stopped any other way.
“The awful news out of south Texas on Sunday confirms that the time for denial has passed,” Chinn says. “Evil has invaded American sanctuaries and will continue to do so.”
Among the measures he says he’ll propose is training ushers to be able to “welcome the stranger,” as Jesus preached, but to do so with “prudence,” always engaging strangers in conversation about what their intentions are as they enter a sanctuary where most have let their guards down.