On GuardBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Northside churches differ in security plans to protect members
Many churches on the Northside were more focused on ministering to the community following the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, because they had already modified their security plans following previous shootings at houses of worship.
Eleven people were killed on October 27 when a gunman entered the Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire during one of the day’s ceremonies.
The incident was the first major shooting at a house of worship since 2017 and the 19th since 1999 that has resulted in fatalities, according to Lifeway’s Christian Resource’s Facts and Trend’s website.
Area religious leaders noticed the increase in shootings and have taken steps to ensure their congregants remain as safe as possible. Some churches have private security, while others have enlisted congregants to help keep members safe. Others still have brought in private consultants to help put emergency protocols in place.
Churches have differing opinions on the use of firearms. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, as well as the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, prohibit firearms, while they are allowed by trained individuals at First Presbyterian Church and Christ United Methodist Church.
Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison declined to say if they support having firearms on their campus.
Meanwhile, the Mississippi Baptist Convention is simply encouraging churches to have security plans in place if the unthinkable happens.
“I have written several editorials pleading with churches to get a security system in place that will work for them,” said William Perkins, editor of the Baptist Record, a publication of the convention. “It’s not a matter of whether it’s necessary or not, or whether we’re uncomfortable … There needs to be consideration of how many doors you have, where they lead to, where they come from, do they need to be secured?
There’s a lot to think about other than to tackle a gunman if he comes in the front door.”
In April 2016, the Diocese of Jackson announced it would “maintain its current policy banning firearms and other weapons inside places of worship,” following the passage of the Mississippi Church Protection Act.
The bill allows firearms to be carried in places of worship, and provides immunity for individuals who use weapons in places of worship for self defense.
Pepper Carter, next generation discipleship minister and communications director at Broadmoor, said her church has had a security team in place for years. She said the church is constantly evaluating its security needs, and modifies plans as needed.
“On any given day, our campus is filled with people from all walks of life. We’re always evaluating (our plans) to keep up with the needs around us,” she said.
St. Andrew’s started talking about security about a year ago, following the Sutherland Springs, Texas, and the school shooting in Florida.
“The frequency of these things have reached the point where schools, churches, grocery stores, shopping malls, places where people congregate, are all vulnerable, said the Very Rev. Ron Pogue, interim dean.
St. Andrew’s has about 3,000 members.
In May, church leaders brought on a security consultant to help the church come up with plans. “In June, (the consultant) started attending meetings and assessed the building, and in July he wrote some directions which are in flip charts with color-coded tabs,” Pogue said.
The flip books can be found in every room of the church and provide instructions for various emergency situations, from how to deal with severe weather, medical emergencies or armed intruders.
“The main thing is to get people out of harms’ way,” he said. “If someone comes into a building where there are multiple classrooms, like Sunday school, and they’re in rooms where they can’t get out, they are to lock the doors, turn off the lights, close the blinds, darken the room and take cover.”
St. Andrew’s doesn’t have armed guards but does have an off-duty Jackson Police officer working at church services and events who is armed, Pogue said.
“The rabbi at the Tree of Life said, if they had a security guard in the building, he would’ve been a victim. Their (security guards) are not carrying automatic weapons. They have pistols in their holsters,” he said.
The suspect in the Tree of Life incident was armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and three handguns.
Christ United Methodist Church also began looking at its security policies about a year ago, after Sutherland Springs.
The church on Old Canton Road has about 3,400 members.
“The biggest thing we’ve done is we have now hired a member who is retired from the sheriff’s department as a part-time security director,” said T.R. Cook, the church’s executive director. “We recruited lay people to be on a security team and have given them some training.
“On Sunday morning and Wednesday night, we (now) have a security team that have assigned places they walk around and observe.”
Cook explained that all security team members meet the criteria established in the Church Protection Act. The act was passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in 2016.
Under the Mississippi Statute 45-9-171, those carrying weapons must have a permit and complete an instructional course in the safe handling and use of firearms. The law also states that individuals designated as security officers must be listed in church minutes or noted in writing at the time that individual is appointed.
Meanwhile, First Presbyterian Church in downtown Jackson has had a security plan in place for years.
“We’re not doing anything differently. We have armed security 24/7 at the church. During services, we have multiple armed security (guards) and hire off-duty JPD officers to be there also,” said Executive Minister Ralph Kelley. “We try to have our guys really visible. They wear bright yellow shirts that say, ‘security.’
“Our security and JPD tells us the best thing we can do is be seen. If someone has ill intentions and they see security guys walking around, they may think, ‘maybe I better not do this,’” Kelly said.
Kelley said the church of roughly 3,000 members had security prior to his joining in 2012. “Our head of security is former military, former JPD officer (and First Presbyterian) was part of his beat,” he said. “He already knows a lot of people in the community – good guys and bad guys.
“We feel quite confident with him around.”
Officials with Temple Beth Israel declined to comment. The Mississippi Muslim Association couldn’t be reached for comment.