Safety and Security?

Last week, I attended a workshop on “Protecting Houses of Worship,” offered by various state and federal entities in the state of Maine. The workshop included a whole lot of information on different aspects of safety in light of the peculiar circumstances of houses of worship, in that they are places that are so often “open” and “inviting,” and sometimes the handy target of people who are driven to hatefulness. On the one hand, it was good to be reminded of the significance of planning and looking at our physical plant with the eye of an outsider. What are our vulnerabilities? If the unimaginable happened, what would we do and how would people know how to respond? On the other hand, the workshop reminded me of the very different ways people look at the world. One person’s security can be the source of another person’s feelings of the exact opposite.

The presenters covered a large swath of issues— from emergency planning to active shooter scenarios to cybersecurity. I found myself thinking about all sorts of situations at Old South, some real and some imaginary. Although it hasn’t happened often, we’ve occasionally encountered a new person who arrives for worship behaving in a strange and perplexing way. Every one of these episodes that I can remember has involved a young man who arrived a little late for worship. Since worship had begun, it was impossible to speak to the person, to welcome him and make an assessment of his intentions. One time, the young man came right up to the front pew and plopped down. He had a cardboard sign in his hands that he placed backwards against the back of the pew, so that I couldn’t read it. He made me— and a whole lot of other people— very nervous. After worship, we discovered that he was planning to attend a rally at the state capitol, which is not far away. Another time, a young man arrived a little late for worship and spent quite a lot of time pacing around the back of the sanctuary and taking photos. It turned out that he was a tourist from Germany.

One of the most bothersome aspects of these episodes has been that the worship experience got completely derailed. I might as well have just stopped worship altogether. Once the distraction arrived, almost no one paid attention to worship any longer. After the incident with the German photographer, several people told me how nervous they were through the whole service, and that they were especially concerned for me and my safety. This was before the pandemic, in our old worship format, which put me behind a huge piece of furniture. I was probably the safest one in the building behind that behemoth of a chancel. Still, I appreciated their concerns and wondered about whether or not we should have formal plans for out-of-the-ordinary visitors.

The last session of the workshop involved a panel discussion that included a couple of leaders of religious communities who have experienced situations far worse than mine and a couple of law enforcement officers. One of the officers identified himself as the police chief in a large Maine town. He said that he attended church not in that town, but in a city about 20 miles away.

Although we were told, earlier in the day, that the panel would be the “most exciting” part of the day, I found the panel to be dull and uninteresting— until that police chief started talking about his own church experience and attending worship. He shared with the audience that he keeps a gun on his person when he attends worship and church events, and he’s not the only police officer to do so at that particular church. And, it sounded like he doesn’t conceal his weapon, but that he carries it on his person openly. He told us that he likes helping people feel safe.

I didn’t feel safe. And I wondered if I would feel safe if someone who attended worship at Old South not only carried a gun to worship, but carried it openly. I started thinking about those few incidents we’ve had at Old South, where young men have shown up and acted a little strangely. Could something really unfortunate have happened?

I know that I would probably feel differently if I had ever experienced a terrible episode of violence on church grounds. Still, I am very uncomfortable with the notion that anyone would attend a Christian worship service with any sort of deadly weapon, concealed or otherwise, police officer or not. It’s too easy for small episodes to ramp up to dangerous levels. It’s too easy for people to react and respond in problematic ways. Are weapons the only way of confronting a dangerous situation, especially in a Christian setting?

While it’s not unreasonable to want to feel safe, I wonder about what is given up when people attend worship with weapons for the expressed purpose of “helping” people to feel safe. I would prefer not to feel like I’m living in the Wild West, surrounded by “good guys” and “bad guys,” since there’s sometimes no difference between the two. In a Christian setting, safety must be considered in light of the Golden Rule, with an effort to identify honestly the sources of fearfulness. Relying on a firearm to “protect” a house of worship is a fragile and flimsy method in a community that claims to be the Body of Christ.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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