On Religion

When Jimmy Meeks reached Sutherland Springs, Texas, the First Baptist Church was screened off as a crime scene as experts investigated the Sunday morning massacre that claimed 26 lives.

As a retired police officer, and a Baptist preacher, Meeks didn’t need to enter the ravaged sanctuary. As a church-security consultant, he paid special attention to the church’s parking lot and the surrounding area.

When the gunman arrived, he parked across the street. He had to cover lots of ground to reach the church.

“It’s just a simple little building,” said Meeks, who is part of a “Sheepdog Seminars” team, training church leaders how to protect biblical “sheep” from “wolves.”

“There are churches like this one all over the country -- there always have been and there always will be. ... So many churches don’t have someone outside in the parking lot, standing watch. They don’t see the danger coming.”

Church-security issues are back in the news, as America faces renewed debates about safety, faith and the Second Amendment.

But some church leaders, like Meeks, have been studiously paying attention to church-security issues ever since the night of Sept. 15, 1999, when an angry outsider entered Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and killed seven during a youth-group prayer rally.

Since 1999, at least 800 people have died in church attacks across America, said Meeks, who has 35 years of police experience, including 11 years when he led a Fort Worth church while serving as an officer in nearby Hurst. Two of his areas of expertise are hostage negotiations and crime-prevention techniques.

So far, 108 people have been killed in churches during 2017. The previous record was 77 in one year.

Meeks stressed that the Sheepdog team (churchsafetyseminar.com) didn’t go to Sutherland Springs on business. Along with concerned clergy from Texas and elsewhere in America, “We went there to put our arms around people and let them weep on our shoulders. ... We’ll help with other things down the line.”

One of the problems, whenever another tragedy causes headlines, is that some people think the solution to every church-security problem is one word -- “guns.” One critic, noted Meeks, recently accused his organization of trying to “organize an NRA convention” in a local Bible Belt church.

“Guns are not the answer,” he said. “I tell people that I have the greatest safety tip in the history of safety tips -- WAKE UP.”

The bottom line: “Waking up” does not mean urging throngs of church folks to start packing concealed weapons when they take their places in pews and pulpits.

“There are many people carrying guns who have no right to be doing that. They are dangerous -- dangerous to other people and dangerous to their own families,” Meeks said. When a threat arises, “people don’t rise to the level of whatever ability they think they have. They sink to the level of their training. ... You don’t need someone who was in the military long ago bringing a weapon to church when they haven’t taken a shot on a range in 20 years or gone to a safety course -- ever.”

Religious groups may or may not choose to guide people into gun safety classes. That isn’t the emphasis at most church-security gatherings.

The key, Meeks said, is that pastors must talk openly about safety issues, including the need to have a few trained church volunteers or off-duty police at strategic points around the church, such as parking lots and major entrances. It’s also important for church members to trust their leaders during times of strife in their families. If there is any chance of family violence, church leaders need to hear about it -- with systems in place to keep the information confidential.

“Words come first. You have to have people trained to deal with angry words and upset people long before they bring their conflicts to church. If it gets to guns, it’s too late,” he said. “But pastors just don’t want to talk about all this, because they’re scared of running people off.

“You see, church folks still think that people out there are like them, that they’re basically good and they don’t want to hurt anyone. That’s just not true. We know for a fact now that it isn’t true.”

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)

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