How Midlands churches are preparing to stop deadly attacks

Shandon Baptist Church is home for community meetings as well as worship for its members
Shandon Baptist Church is home for community meetings as well as worship for its members The State newspaper

More Midlands church leaders are considering increasing security for their congregations after the shooting deaths of 26 people in a rural Texas church on Sunday.

“Unfortunately, you have to look in that direction,” said the Rev. George Ashford Jr., pastor of Journey United Methodist Church in northeast Richland County. “It’s necessary to consider in the day and age we live in.”

His 1,100-member church is among those in the Columbia area that have already taken steps to deter violence during services and other activities. Like some others, the church uses armed guards, mainly off-duty police in uniform, along with security cameras.

Church members who are law enforcement officers also are allowed to carry weapons inside as protection against potential attacks.

“We want to be welcoming, but we also have an obligation to keep our members safe,” said the Rev. Chris DeWease, executive pastor at Lake Murray Baptist Church near Lexington. His church also uses off-duty police officers in uniform along with security cameras and other measures.

Meanwhile, the bishop of the S.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Monday called a statewide meeting for Nov. 30 of pastors and deacons from more than 150 congregations to exchange ideas on security. It’s a discussion vital “to keep our congregations safe,” the bishop, Herman Yoos, said in a letter.

Some churches already were taking steps to increase security that were suggested by law enforcement officials following the slayings of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June 2015 as well as suspicious fires at churches across the Southeast in 2015. Those steps are similar to what Ashford’s and DeWease’s congregations are doing.

Carl Chinn, a Colorado-based consultant who has compiled a database of violence in houses of worship, lists at least 453 deadly attacks nationwide over the last 18 years, killing 574 people.

Chinn told the Associated Press in September that terrorist attacks make up only a sliver of that violence – 6 percent of the total. Most are the result of robberies, personal disputes or domestic violence.

In Texas, a public safety official said the massacre at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs appeared to stem from a domestic situation and was not racially or religiously motivated.

Preventing an attack caused by domestic violence can be tough, Chinn said in September. "You know where she parked, what service she attended, what time she gets there, what time she leaves," he said.

He said religious leaders too often believe God will protect their members, but he compares that to Bible verses that say God will provide for believers.

"I have never met anyone who sits up in bed, raises their hands, and clothes fall down upon them," he said. "Church security is absolutely the same way. We believe in God's promise of protection, but that doesn't mean we turn a blind eye."

Some churches worry too much security takes away from their mission to be open while others are concerned about cost, local ministers said.

“Every church is different, so it’s best to customize what they do,” said the Rev. Johnny Rumbough of the Lexington Baptist Association whose membership is composed of 77 churches.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who led several training sessions with church leaders after the Emanuel AME Church shootings in Charleston, said congregations can take simple steps. They include having members with military or police experience keep an eye on arrivals and limiting access to a single door.

Those steps can go a long way to “scare off” attacks, Lott said.

Allowing members who are police officers to carry weapons inside churches is prudent because they have the training and expertise to use the weapons, some ministers said. “As long as those persons are qualified, I don’t discourage that,” said Scott Morrison, assistant police chief in West Columbia.

Some congregations are staying up-to-date with precautions.

Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia is adding more cameras in sections of its campus to assist police officers and members on patrol.

“We try to stay current,” executive pastor Rev. Brandon Petersen said. “We want to have our bases covered.”

The slayings in the small rural Texas church is a message that no congregation is immune from violent attack, Lott said.

“This last one should really get their attention,” he said.

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483