GREENFIELD — Park Chapel Christian Church, one of the county’s largest faith organizations, will soon have a team of armed guards manning its Sunday worship services.
Leaders of the Greenfield church are working to put together a security team made up of local law enforcement officers who already regularly attend Park Chapel. Starting in January, those men and women will now come to worship with handguns in tow, ready to protect their fellows from anyone looking to do harm.
Mass shootings across the country, including one that devastated a Texas church last month, prompted the church’s elders to re-evaluate their building’s security measures, said Scott Kern, a director of ministries at Park Chapel.
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The church already has several safety protocols in place, but leaders realized that implementing a few stricter rules — such as limiting access to the building and taking advantage of some members’ specialized skills and training — could go a long way to keep the congregation safe, Kern said.
And Park Chapel isn’t alone: leaders of churches across the county say the shooting in Texas is a reminder that even sanctuaries are vulnerable to crazed gunmen.
Churches across the county have started reaching out more regularly to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, seeking advice on how to protect themselves and their flocks from tragedy, officials said.
Sheriff’s Maj. Brad Burkhart — who hosts free active-shooter crisis training locally, offering tips on how to protect yourself against a mass shooter — said three county churches reached out to him immediately after the massacre in Texas, asking that he visit their church before the end of the year to give security advice.
Prior to that, Burkhart said he was holding training sessions about once a month at schools, businesses and other organizations around the county. Churches were seldom on the list, he said.
On Nov. 5, a gunman shot and killed more than two dozen people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a town just outside San Antonio, during the Sunday morning worship service at the church.
The gunman went aisle-by-aisle looking for victims and shot crying babies at point-blank range, according to witness accounts. He later died from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being chased by bystanders and crashing his car.
Twenty-six people, ranging in age from 18 months to 77 years old, were killed, including a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Another 20 people were wounded in the shooting.
The incident is among one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.
Talks of how to increase security at Park Chapel were well on their way by the time the massacre occurred, Kern said. But the shooting served as a solid and tragic reminder of why church security is so important.
Park Chapel asked the Greenfield Police Department to station an officer outside the church on the Sunday following the shooting, in hopes of giving the congregation peace of mind, Kern said. And church leaders and those who volunteered to be part of the security team began working more diligently to implement the stricter security measures they’d outlined, he said.
Kern, who was a high school principal for more than a decade before coming to work for Park Chapel, said the security measures church leaders put in place mirror those seen at schools across the nation today.
Going forward, the congregation will use a single entrance to go in and out of the building; all doors except those at the front of the building will be locked, Kern said. The same goes for the doors leading into the church’s two sanctuaries, he continued. All but one doorway will remain locked while the service is in progress on Sunday mornings.
By limiting access to the building, church staff will better be able to spot a suspicious person and can more quickly call for help, Kern said. If someone looking to harm the congregation does enter the church, they can more easily stop him or her from entering the worship areas.
Park Chapel’s leaders have also rallied a group of law enforcement officers who are members of the congregation to bring weapons to Sunday services and sit, armed, in the crowd of worshipers in case something should happen.
Members of this team will know the church’s lockdown procedures and can monitor the hallways and worship areas, even communicate over a radio, on Sunday morning about anything they might find concerning.
Leaders of other churches in the area say the shooting in Texas prompted them, too, to brush up security protocols to ensure staff and congregants know what to do if the unthinkable were to happen.
Matt Wickham, a pastor at Brandywine Community Church in Greenfield, said the church has always had strict safety protocols in place around their youngest members. The church seeks background checks for any volunteers who work with kids and have put check-in and -out procedure in place for all youth ministry meetings and events.
They have a safety team in place, as well, that patrols the church sanctuary, lobby area and children’s areas before and during services, he said. Members are trained to respond quickly if someone has a medical emergency or they are alerted to something concerning.
But the incident in Texas brought a renewed sense of urgency, Wickham said.
Now, the church is working to ensure its safety team is fully staffed each weekend, he said. They’re also planning to schedule a training session with local law enforcement and to develop written guidelines for how team members should respond in different emergencies.
Kris Sorensen, a pastor at Brookville Road Community Church in New Palestine, said his church first put a security team in place in 2008 after a shooting at a church in Colorado Springs.
The church’s elders worked with members of local law enforcement to implement safety plans and began training for an array of scenarios, including fires, tornadoes, lost children, medical issues and threats of violence, Sorensen said. Training continues on a regular basis so the team can be as prepared as possible, he said.
There is a police presence on the church property during all Sunday services, Sorensen said. They’ve also had law enforcement officers visit to speak to the staff about how best to respond to emergency situations, he said.
It’s a shame church have to think this way, Kern said; most religious groups pride themselves on being open, friendly places.
While they pray nothing like the massacre in Texas ever befalls a church in Hancock County, they can’t go on assuming it won’t, he said.