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'The reality is it could happen anywhere': Faith leaders discuss safety in houses of worship

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'The reality is it could happen anywhere': Faith leaders discuss safety in houses of worship

Church leaders in Oklahoma and across the country are having to address the security of their congregations after recent events in Texas and New Jersey. [Photo illustration by Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
Church leaders in Oklahoma and across the country are having to address the security of their congregations after recent events in Texas and New Jersey. [Photo illustration by Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

A metro area security professional said the odds are good that some Oklahomans are toting firearms along with their holy books as they enter houses of worship each week.

Such a scenario unfolded Dec. 29 in White Settlement, Texas, when a man fatally shot two church members at the West Freeway Church of Christ. An armed church member shot and killed the gunman who had opened fire on worshippers.

Tara Koetter of Norman, owner of Sheepdog Security, said she's hoping spiritual leaders across Oklahoma are talking with their congregations about safety and the distinct possibility that some members may be packing in the pews — carrying firearms. Koetter said these discussions are particularly important because the the state's "Stand Your Ground Law" has been expanded to include houses of worship and a permitless carry law went into effect in November 2019.

"We can assume that someone in your congregation has a gun because this is Oklahoma," she said.

"I hope that pastors are having conversations with their congregations to let them know that they do have a safety team or a response team or off-duty officer — there is protocol. We don't really want the Wild West in our sanctuaries."

Koetter and Paul Conrady, a security expert operating Church Security Pro 35, said houses of worship typically grow concerned in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like the one that occurred in White Settlement and many tend to lose focus on the matter several weeks later.

However, the pair said security must become a priority and stay a priority.

Several metro area faith leaders agreed.

The Rev. Walter Mullican, senior pastor of Portland Avenue Baptist Church, said faith leaders must do all they can to protect worshippers from incidents like shootings.

"The reality is it could happen anywhere in any church on any given Sunday," he said.

Mullican said his Oklahoma City church has trained individuals who carry firearms and know how to use them. He said the individuals are asked to keep the weapons concealed because the church does not want to "present an armed force at the door." The church also sent some church leaders to security workshops where they could learn more about keeping the church secure and safe during crisis situations.

"We still trust the Lord week by week. We know He is our protector," Mullican said. "We're not going to live in fear, but we are going to be wise and do the things that we need to to protect the families that are here each week."

The Rev. Lesly Broadbent, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Oklahoma City, said his church at 131 NW 4 has a unique history as a church building across the street from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the congregation has aided the city's homeless and indigent for more than a century.

"So our church understands the importance of being diligent in our approach to security concerns," he said.

Broadbent said "First Church" has a trained volunteer security team armed with the necessary weapons to provide appropriate security.

He said the development of safety teams and other security measures has become a necessity.

"Every place of worship in today’s culture must think through their approach to security. Lock down procedures, code red alarms and active shooter procedures are a necessity just like they are for schools and large businesses. Each church must determine their policies regarding the carrying of firearms for congregational security," Broadbent said.

The Rev. Vera Radley, pastor of Del City Church of the Nazarene, said it breaks her heart that churches have to think about the possibility of shootings and stabbings in their sacred spaces.

She said she is aware of church members who come to church armed and she has no problem with it.

"I trust those carrying and know that they have the interest of keeping us safe," Radley said. "I care for all those who attend my church and if it takes a gun to stop someone from hurting any of them, that is what I want."

The Rev. Don Wolf, pastor of St. Eugene Catholic Church, said he has never encountered any difficulty in Mass during his 39 years as an ordained priest. He said he thinks his current parish church is secure because he and other leaders have taken steps to enhance security, particularly in light of the parish school that is housed on church complex.

Like Mullican, Wolf said he wants the church to be safe but continue to convey a welcoming atmosphere.

"It seems to me the best security would be a system in which we communicated safety while at the same time there was no sense of being overwhelmed by a uniformed presence, weapons at the ready and doors locked and guarded, he said. "Ultimately, no matter what steps we take, we are vulnerable to the circumstances of our place and time. We cannot be a church whose doors are locked from the inside, guarded from the world and secure from all that flows through the world. We can't be foolish, but we do have to accept that we cannot make every place the safest possible place."

As for armed church members, Wolf said it was important to note that the West Freeway congregant who shot and killed the assailant who who opened fire on worshippers was trained in firearms and had some training in security.

"He was not just an average guy with a pistol," the priest said.

He said "it all sounds so simple" to think of shooting someone who has come into the church to harm people, but it is much more complicated than people imagine and what they see on TV that he would never call upon anyone in the congregation to bring their weapons to church if they were not trained for police or security work.

Along those lines, Tom Gray, president of the Oklahoma City Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Latter-day Saints welcome members who are current law enforcement officers to carry firearms inside church facilities but all other members are asked not to bring firearms to church.

He said churches continue to welcome all visitors but they are addressing security issues by encouraging members to take an active role in security measures by being aware of their surroundings, being observant of behaviors that are of of the ordinary and to report those issues to church leaders or law enforcement.

The Rev. Daniel U'Ren, senior minister of Western Oaks Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said he remembered a time when houses of worship were never places where violence took place. Throughout history, these were places where anyone could go and claim "sanctuary" and be safe from harm, he said.

Nowadays, U'Ren said he has had people he knew worked in law enforcement assure him that they were being the watchdogs of the congregation out of necessity.

"It's a shame that a place of worship might feel it necessary to take such precautions in a place dedicated to God," he said.

Meanwhile, one of the leaders of a minority faith community also expressed sadness that such measures are warranted.

"I dream of a day when worship places will no longer have visible police cars on site. I dream of a day when fences and security cameras are no longer needed. I dream of a day when my mosque is viewed as not only a worship place for Muslims, but also a place of charity and healing for all," Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said.

"Unfortunately, until that day comes, security is a high priority especially in the light of not only high Islamaphobia in our nation, but also in the light of recent shooting in predominantly minority worship places. The police, the fence, the security cameras and all internal security mechanism have to stay for now.“

Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›

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