LOS ANGELES — Rev. Steven Marsh never thought he’d see his church in Laguna Woods, California — a city of 16,500 largely populated by retirees — spend $20,000 a month for security.
Then a gunman opened fire on May 15 during a luncheon at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, where Marsh is the senior pastor, killing one and wounding five other members of a Taiwanese congregation. Officials said the man, motivated by political hatred against Taiwan, locked the church doors and hid fire bombs inside before shooting a gathering of elderly church members.
Houses of worship are places of shelter, reflection and peace, where strangers are welcomed. But the recent high-profile mass shootings in the US are a reminder that violence can happen anywhere, prompting some religion leaders to step up security.
At the Geneva Presbyterian, armed security guards now supervise each week and during Sunday services. Church is also adding more security cameras, developing an active shooter plan and applying for Department of Homeland Security funding.
“We are not trying to militarize the church,” Marsh said. “We prayed about it and decided to have armed security as an act of faith.”
Without the new security measures, Marsh predicted a mass exodus by congregations and schools on church premises would follow the shooting.
Creating a space that is both safe and welcoming is possible, said Rabbi Charlie Citron-Walker, a former spiritual leader of the Beth Israel Congregation in Colville, Texas.
In January, he and three others were taken hostage by a pistol-wielding man during a Shabbat service. After a nearly 11-hour standoff, Citroen-Walker threw a chair at the gunman – a daring act that helped him escape safely. He credits the many rounds of active shooter training he has taken.
“When you are unable to escape or can’t find a hiding place, you need to take action and find a way to fight back,” Citron-Walker said. “When we feared most that he was going to kill us, I saw a moment that I had been looking forward to all day.”
Citron-Walker now leads Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As he is working on a protection plan with his new church, he is taking into account how a welcoming synagogue can increase security “because anyone who wants to do harm can see that They won’t be able to walk anonymously.”
Historically, sanctuaries have been vulnerable to violent attacks – from bombings at black churches during the Civil Rights era to more recent shootings at mosques and Sikh gurdwaras in the US. In the US, FBI hate crime statistics show that incidents in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques increased by 34.8% between 2014 and 2018.
“All religions are being attacked in America by extremists and extremists,” said Alon Stewie, security advisor for synagogues, Jewish community centers and day schools. Some congregations are reticent to show up.
“They’re asking too many questions: ‘Should I come to weekly services or just for the holidays? And if I come, should I bring my kids?'”
Stevie said religious leaders who once preferred to leave safety in the hands of God are taking precautions that seemed unimaginable years ago. He said more congregations are also carrying hidden handguns for services.
Stevie said that from $25 million in 2016 to $180 million last year, the federal government has steadily increased the amount of money set aside to help the faith community with security costs. But not all religion leaders know that they can apply for it, he said.
Past attacks on houses of worship and other public places have prompted faith leaders to evaluate – sometimes for the first time – if more can be done to keep their flocks safe.
Today an armed police officer oversees Sunday services at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, said Rev. Kylan Middleton, who leads the congregation. When an officer is unable to be on the premises for church events, members with hidden weapons keep an eye.
“It is sad, but we are in a time where we must have armed security to protect our people,” he said.
The church is two blocks from the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 2015, a self-proclaimed white supremacist opened fire and killed nine worshipers, including a senior pastor, during a Bible study. Middleton said that the late pastor was like a brother to him.
In the wake of the massacre, Mount Zion worshiper style has included safety discussions into the equation, including the need for some to always keep their eyes open, especially when most have closed their eyes in prayer, Middleton said. .
“No one ever thought there would be mass shootings in churches, which are holy sanctuaries where you can escape from the world and take spiritual refuge,” he said. “When that space is violated, it creates restlessness of the soul.”
Following the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi John Leiner met with local New York police to discuss security for Base BKLYN, his home-based ministry that has welcomed thousands of people.
For years, he and his wife, Faith, would open their front door just before Shabbat dinner, believing in a Judaism where no door was closed or locked. That changed after Tree of Life – the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. Leiner also installed a security camera and buzz-in system for visitors. He hired an armed guard after this year’s hostage situation in Texas.
“It’s very unfortunate that we live in an era when we need to compromise on the value of our openness to the threat of violence, but that’s just the reality at the moment,” Leiner said.
This is a balancing act for many people. Marsh said the shooting at his church happened because members of the Taiwanese congregation were welcoming the shooter – a man they did not know.
“The church needs to welcome all people, and we can’t lose that,” he said.
“Are there ways an active shooter could come into our compound again? Yes. But we have to be prepared for this to happen again. Otherwise we’ll all have to go through a metal detector. It won’t be a church anymore.” “