It’s been a month since shooter Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.
A score of other churchgoers were injured when the 26-year-old, black-clad in tactical gear, opened fire during the Sunday morning services Nov. 5 in the small community of 600 north of San Antonio.
As authorities across the state and country debate how to prevent such attacks, ministers here continue to tend their flocks – ready, if necessary, to defend them.
In a handful of churches surveyed this week, security plans have been in place for years. The ministers and laypeople behind it have confidence in their preparations, but their faith is, as ever, in God.
Surveillance equipment is in place. Law enforcement advisers have helped pinpoint vulnerabilities. Volunteers, active-duty officers, retired police and members of the military fill the pews and halls on Sunday mornings, keeping watchful eyes open in the midst of worship.
It’s East Texas: in addition to those churches that bolster their security employing armed, off-duty law enforcement personnel, church leaders know – generally and, also, with certainty – members of the congregation are armed as well, carrying concealed-handgun licenses and weapons.
The realities challenge the belief that churches and schools are safe zones, Grace Baptist Church Pastor Scott Brown says, “Where people don’t have to worry about the outside world. When you find a tragedy such as this happening, it is definitely disheartening and definitely comes to a point of reality of the world we live in today,” he said, “one of evil and one that is definitely broken from sin.
“As far as us, as ministers, looking at this, as far as congregants in our church, we take every possible means to be able to protect our guests as well as our members. When we step foot on this campus, it’s always understanding that we’re being not overly-cautious but we’re here with eyes wide open.”
For Pastor Paul Michael Vacca of First Baptist Church of Liberty City, the news out of Sutherland Springs underscores the need to pray and to reach people with the Gospel.
“People with a sound mind, loving Christ don’t murder other people,” he said. “I don’t think that it will ever be wholly-preventable because the root problem is a sin problem. Even if you took away all the guns, people would sharpen sticks and attack each other.
“The root problem is sin and that’s going to continue until Christ returns.”
Until then, Vacca added, Matthew 10:16 tells believers to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” while 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds them “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
Following such tragedies, he said, Christians are to act in wisdom.
“We’re not to overreact or base our decisions on emotions. We’re to use the sound mind and the wisdom that God gives to provide a safe environment for people to come and worship.”
In that regard, FBC-LC has made its preparations. The church has sought the expertise of law enforcement to inform its security: a Gregg County Sheriff’s Deputy is on-site at all public worship services, a GCSO cruiser parked as a visual deterrent.
“The size of our campus, one deputy can’t really take care of all the buildings on their own,” he said. In addition to the active-duty officer, “We have several church members who have been in law enforcement and retired or who actively serve as peace officers and who carry in a concealed capacity in plainclothes on Sunday,” while other civilian church members are also licensed for concealed carry.
“They purposely will make patrols around the campus at different times during the services.”
The church builds relationships with local law enforcement, Vacca added, supporting them and also making efforts to familiare them with the church, its staff members and its facilities.
Meanwhile, thanks to recent changes in the law, “We are moving forward with putting together an actual, official, organized security team that would consist of church members” working in concert with law enforcement.
The Rev. Dudley Plaisance can’t help but look at the world differently now.
“I am shocked that we are now talking about security in churches,” the Pirtle United Methodist Church minister said. “That was the one place we thought we could find sanctuary.”
Pirtle UMC has a long-standing committee of congregation members with law enforcement experience who maintain a security plan for the church.
Among various measures, “The church grounds are covered by cameras, and we have someone monitoring the cameras,” he noted. “We have had a camera system for 10 years, but we just recently started identifying concealed-carries and coming up with training and plans for them.”
Pirtle UMC’s broad strategy acknowledge that various congregation members will be carrying their own weapons at any given time.
“It is part of the overall plan,” Plaisance said. He’s been at the pulpit of the church since 2003, and there are no particular security incidents that spring to mind: “Not to speak of – things that we thought were harmless in the past we’re now watching more closely.”
Like other ministers, Plaisance allows he’s had to reconcile the church’s focus on outreach with the reality that some individuals need a guiding hand for other reasons beyond discipleship.
“We’ve had people walk through the back doors, unknown people that just walked in to use the restroom; now, we’re a lot more cautious about that,” he said. Strangers to the church are met with open arms – and watchful eyes as the congregation gets to know them. “It’s a shame that we have to be more vigilant because there are people who walk in, in desperate need. We just have to be more cautious in how we handle those.
At Grace Baptist, Gene Keenon has been attending the church for 28 years. The congregation’s Safe Team has been in place the past 15.
“We are charged with keeping our facility – included the parking lot and sanctuary and classrooms – safe during church hours,” Keenon said, with one church member, John Cheshire, coordinating the volunteers’ schedule and rotation.
Most of the security volunteers are former law enforcement or retired military. In Keenon’s case, he’s taken tactical courses and active shooter training. This past Sunday, the church filled another handgun licensing class with interested members of the congregation.
“I never thought that I would see the day that is necessary in church. It’s always been hallowed ground,” Keenon said, but times have changed. As Brown leads the church, “With all of the tragedies across the nation, he has enhanced our program, an increase in on-duty Safe Team members – more eyes and ears.”
In addition to the roster of volunteers, Keenon is confident there are church members who are armed during services – “I have a pretty good feeling there are several. There are some pretty big purses.” – but there aren’t numbers to share about that grassroots aspect of the church’s security.
He knows of only one security incident at Grace Baptist the past three decades: a car was broken into in the parking lot; the suspect was apprehended pretty quickly.
That said, “I believe like every church feels like ‘It’ll never happen to us,’ and that’s the awareness we have to change today,” Keenon added. “We have to watch out and be sure that never happens to us, and be aware of all of our surroundings.
“We welcome all to come and worship, but we need to have a safe area for people to worship and not have to worry about looking over their shoulders while they’re praying.”
Brown’s path to the pulpit at Grace Baptist included time in the mission field. Before he took on the Kilgore church in January 2015, he’d witnessed severe violence firsthand serving in Saltillo, Mexico.
“We understand gunfights. We’ve seen death. We see that type of culture,” he said. There and here, “People are people, sin is sin and evil is evil, no matter where you are. We live in a broken world. We really do.”
An off-duty sheriff’s deputy is on-site Wednesday evenings and Grace Baptist, too, has relied on local law enforcement to advise on security, identifying potential hiding spaces, points of entry and similar weaknesses.
“Err on the side of safety in that respect,” Brown said.
Addressing immediate security needs, it’s not possible to guarantee safety anywhere, he says.
“There is no long-term solution that’s going to stop someone from doing something except for us to be diligent and always have people on our campus to help deter things or people who may have bad intentions,” Brown added. “Especially when you look at the situation of our society and of our culture, I think a lot of it has to do with going back to what Jesus said: love one another.
“We have a saying in our church, ‘This is the perfect place for imperfect people.’ We accept people for who they are. But we also understand there’s a world outside this campus with people who are in need, who are broken. Us, as followers of Christ, we still have to be cautious with people who step on this campus as well as those we meet out in public.”