SOUTHERN INDIANA A week after two fatal attacks in houses of worship across the country, local faith leaders are taking stock of how to protect their congregations while maintaining open hearts and standing up to fear.
On Dec. 28, five people were stabbed at a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi's home in Monsey, N.J. The following day, three were killed, including the shooter, after a man opened fire in a Texas church.
AN ATTACK ON ALL
John Manzo, pastor at St. Mark's United Church of Christ in New Albany, called the recent attacks "appalling and soul-crushing," referencing the loss of human life and the fact that people were targeted during their times of worship and celebration.
"The reality is anytime somebody attacks a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a Buddhist Temple, they're attacking all of us," Manzo said.
But the recent killings are just the latest that have horrified Manzo, a pastor of nearly 40 years. The June 2015 attack at an African American church in Charleston, S.C., which killed nine, was a heavy blow.
"I think most pastors were shaken, because welcoming somebody in our doors and treating them graciously and praying with them are things that most of us would do and not really think twice about it," he said. "It's scary I graduated seminary in 1980 and this was not even close to being on anybody's mind or conversation."
The violence has caused Manzo and some other faith leaders to re-examine and bolster the safety protocols in place at their houses of worship. Several years ago, St. Mark's installed such features among them surveillance cameras and keeping the doors locked most of the time, including during the worship service. Many of the church personnel have also taken security training.
If someone wants to enter the church during the week, they ring a bell and church staff can see on camera who is there.
"And we have to make a choice: are we letting them in or not?" Manzo said. "A lot of times if you're by yourself and you don't know who the person is, you don't let them in."
This practice is out of sync with his religious inclination to welcome all people with open arms, the pastor said, but vigilance is needed.
"There's this balance," he said. "It's important to have open doors...on the other hand, we have a massive responsibility for the people in the congregation."
Pastor Robert Watkins, who previously led services at Bethel A.M.E. in New Albany and is now at Alexander's Chapel in Evansville, said his church body is being cautious, too.
The facility has solid safety measures in place, but Watkins said he wants to revisit those to strengthen them, especially after the most recent attacks. He also shared similar sentiments to Manzo's about the balance between spirituality and safety.
"We kind of keep an eye on I hate to say it new people coming in," Watkins said. "It's kind of shameful that you have to do that in a place of worship, but we are more conscious of our surroundings.
"I just hope some of this violence would go down...but you never know what's in the hearts and minds of the people."
STANDING UP TO FEAR
Trish Gilbertson, pastor at St. Luke's United Church of Christ in Jeffersonville, said she is more vigilant in public, in general, but won't let herself be terrorized by the recent violence.
"The way I feel about it is sort of the way I feel about all of our public spaces...church, movie theaters, schools...everywhere there's been shootings," Gilbertson said. "[But] I think I just try to keep it all in perspective."
This includes her realizing how small the percentage is of mass shooting compared to overall shootings.
"And also realizing that our Jewish brothers and sisters are probably more at risk, so that should be more of a concern how we care for them and spread more love than hate," Gilbertson said. "And I think just trying to practice what I preach, which is not giving into fear...because when we start operating out of fear that's not good for anybody."
The church has safety features in place, but its leaders are looking at strengthening them to include other situations.
"We are working on a safety plan that is trying to be comprehensive and not just look at shootings, but what we would do in medical emergencies, natural disasters, that kind of thing," the pastor said.
The shooter at the Texas church was taken down by a congregant carrying his own weapon, but this isn't standard practice across the board. State laws vary in Indiana, for instance, it's now legal to carry a gun into a church which has an attached school, but it's still up to the church, itself, to make a determination on whether to allow it.
Indiana State Police Sgt. Carey Huls said being proactive about any potential threat can go a long way; that's why the ISP offers unarmed response to shooter training sessions for schools, businesses and more recently, churches to help them stay safe.
"Most of the programs now deal with prevention; we talk about some of the past instances in schools and businesses," he said. "A lot of times there was information there, warning signs that if people would have acted on, they would have...prevented anything from happening."
The sessions also help organizations set up internal safety and assessment teams, people who are trained and prepared to react to various threats including an active shooter, a term which ISP defines as also including other violence, such as a person with a knife.
"Information and knowledge is power so the more people who know 'hey, if I see these types of indications in somebody and it doesn't quite look right,' that they have something to address it," Huls said.
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