Texas shooting: Local churches consider hiring armed guards and locking doors after Sutherland Springs

'There were really two questions: Do we have any security, and can we get any more?'

Emily Shugerman
Sutherland Springs
Wednesday 08 November 2017 16:15 GMT
Texas gunman's neighbours and colleagues speak after massacre

The Sunday-morning massacre at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas has sparked concern in congregations around the region over whether they are truly safe at their places of worship.

In Wilson County, Texas, where churches are as common as gas stations, several church employees told The Independent they were facing tough questions from their congregations about their security protocols.

“There were really two questions: Do we have any security, and can we get any more?” said Ryan Bush, the youth pastor at the Stockdale Church of Christ.

Mr Bush said the church leadership held an emergency meeting to discuss security measures on Monday night – one day after a gunman, named as Devin Kelley, opened fire on the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26 and injuring 20.

Mr Bush described the shooting as a wake-up call.

“The thing that shook you was just how close to home it was,” he said. “...Having something happen so close, it’s just that realisation that we’re not immune.”

The Church of Christ's doors were unlocked on Tuesday, during Mr Bush’s office hours. The pastor described this as common practice – though maybe not for long. The leadership team had floated the idea of locking the doors more often, and even putting someone on patrol during services.

Mr Bush was wary of the idea.

“Traditionally a church is open to everyone,” he said. “It’s about striking that balance: At what point does security undermine ministry?”

The doors to the Stockdale Church of Christ were open on Tuesday, after a shooting nearby
The doors to the Stockdale Church of Christ were open on Tuesday, after a shooting nearby (Emily Shugerman/The Independent)

But at the nearby St Mary’s Church of Stockdale, parishioners were considering something even more extreme. Hopping out of his pickup truck on Tuesday, facilities manager Kenneth Martin noted that some churchgoers had floated the idea of putting armed guards around the sanctuary.

The idea was similar to one put forward by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who pointed out shortly after the shooting that many citizens could legally carry concealed weapons.

“There's always the opportunity that gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people,” he told Fox News.

Mr Martin didn’t believe that would happen at his church, however – the archdiocese of San Antonio forbids firearms on church premises. But he admitted that at the moment, his congregation didn’t have many better ideas.

“It’s still just a shock,” he said of the shooting

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At least one pastor in the area said he hadn’t put much thought into the issue.

“It’s not really something we’ve talked about,” said Pastor Ray Berales, of the Stockdale United Methodist Church, adding that the church already kept its doors locked during services.

The federal government, however, appears to have been considering the issue for some time. Reverend Jamie Johnson, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, told TIME that he had worked with religious groups on more than a dozen safety initiatives over the last four months. After Sunday’s shooting, he anticipated doing even more.

“We are going to be a whole lot busier in the months and years to come when it comes to safety and security for houses of worship,” Mr Johnson said. “This issue will now come to the forefront of the religious conversation in America.”

The United Methodist Church in Stockdale, Texas
The United Methodist Church in Stockdale, Texas (Emily Shugerman/The Independent)

Before the 5 November attack, there had already been at least a dozen shootings in American places of worship in the last five years. In 2012, for example, six members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin were shot and killed by white supremacist Wade Michael Page. In 2015, nine black worshippers were gunned down at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by another white supremacist, 21-year-old Dylann Roof.

While the nation grapples with how to address these tragedies, the response in Wilson County appears to be to simply soldier on. All three churches surveyed this week said they planned to hold regular services on Sunday. On Tuesday night, to a crowd of cheering vigil attendees, it was announced that the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church would be, too.

Tuesday's vigil at the La Vernia High School football field was attended by residents of Sutherland Springs and the surrounding area. Drenched in the glow of the stadium floodlights, they sang, grasped hands, and bowed their heads in prayer.

Sharon Todd attended the vigil with her husband, Rick, and their niece. The family lives in La Vernia, but lost someone close to them in the Sutherland Springs shooting. Most of the people in the small towns surrounding Sutherland Springs are connected to it in some way, Ms Todd noted, whether through blood, marriage or friendship.

Surveying her community on Tuesday night, she said: “We’re good, hardworking, loving people. And this [the shooting] does not define us.”

The tragedy, her husband added, “only makes us stronger.”

Sandra Jackson, an employee of La Vernia High School, sat by herself in the stands, singing along quietly. She said she had lived in the area for 30 years, and came to the vigil for moral support, as well as personal reasons she preferred not to discuss.

“I wish this could have happened under happier circumstances,” she said of the gathering going on around her. “But the truth of the matter is, we have each other’s backs – and tonight is proof of that”.

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