LOS ANGELES ( Associated Press) — The Rev. Steven Marsh never thought he’d see the day when his church in Laguna Woods, Calif. — a town of 16,500 largely populated by retirees — would spend $20,000 a month on 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 meeting there. Authorities said the man, who was motivated by political hatred against Taiwan, chained the doors to the church and hid firebombs inside before shooting at the gathering of elderly church members.
Houses of worship are meant to be places of refuge, reflection, and peace, where strangers are welcome. But the recent series of high-profile mass shootings in the US is a reminder that violence can happen anywhere, prompting some religious leaders to step up security.
At Geneva Presbyterian, armed security guards now stand guard every day of the week and during Sunday services. The church is also adding more security cameras, developing an active shooter plan and applying for funding from the Department of Homeland Security.
“We’re not trying to militarize the church,” Marsh said. “We prayed about it and made the decision to have armed security as an act of faith.”
Without the new security measures, Marsh predicted that after the shooting there would have been a mass exodus from the congregation and the schools on the church campus.
It is possible to create a space that is both safe and welcoming, said Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, former spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
In January, he and three others were taken hostage by a gun-wielding man during a Shabbat service. Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the gunman, a brave act that helped them escape safely, after a nearly 11-hour standoff. He credits the several rounds of active shooter training he has taken.
“When you can’t run away or find a hiding place, you have to find a way to take action and fight back,” Cytron-Walker said. “When we most feared it would kill us, I saw a moment I had been looking for all day.”
Cytron-Walker now runs Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As he works on a security plan with his new congregation, he is aware of how a welcoming synagogue can improve security “because someone who wants to do harm can see that they won’t be able to walk around in anonymity.”
The shrines have historically been vulnerable to violent attacks, from bombings of black churches during the civil rights era to more recent shootings at mosques and Sikh gurdwaras in the US. In the US, crime statistics FBI hate data show that incidents at churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques increased 34.8% between 2014 and 2018.
“All religions are under attack in the United States by radicals and extremists,” said Alon Stivi, a security consultant for synagogues, Jewish community centers and day schools. Some parishioners are reluctant to show up.
“They’re asking a lot more questions: ‘Should I attend the weekly services or just come during the holidays? And if I come, should I bring my children?’”
Religious leaders who once preferred to leave security in the hands of the divine are taking precautions that seemed unthinkable years before, Stivi said. More parishioners also carry concealed handguns to services, she said.
From $25 million in 2016 to $180 million last year, the federal government has steadily increased the amount of funds it sets aside to help the religious community with security costs, Stivi said. But not all religious leaders know they can apply, she said.
“It is sad, but we are in those moments where we must have armed security to protect our people.”
Previous attacks on places of worship and other public spaces have prompted religious leaders to assess, sometimes for the first time, whether more can be done to keep their flocks safe.
Today, an armed police officer guards Sunday services at Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, said the Rev. Kylon Middleton, who leads the congregation. When an officer can’t be on campus for church events, members carrying concealed weapons keep watch.
“It’s sad, but we are in those moments 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 during a Bible study, killing nine worshipers, including the lead pastor. Middleton said the late pastor was like a brother to him.
In the wake of the massacre, security discussions at Mt. Zion factor worship style into the equation, including the need for some to always keep their eyes open, especially when most have their eyes closed in prayer, Middleton said. .
“Nobody thought that mass shootings would happen in churches, which are holy sanctuaries where you can escape from the world and seek spiritual refuge,” he said. “When that space has been violated, it creates a restlessness of spirit.”
After the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Jon Leener met with local New York police to discuss the safety of Base BKLYN, his home ministry that has welcomed thousands of people.
For years, he and his wife, Faith, would open their front door just before Shabbat dinners, believing in a Judaism where no door is closed or locked. That changed after Tree of Life, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history. Leener also installed a security camera and alarm system for visitors. He hired an armed guard after this year’s hostage-taking in Texas.
“It’s terribly unfortunate that we live in a time where we have to compromise our openness value because of the threat of violence, but that’s the reality right now,” Leener said.
It is a balancing act for many. Marsh said the shooting at his church happened because members of the Taiwanese congregation were welcoming the shooter, a person 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 can get back onto our campus? Yes. But we have to be willing for this to happen again. Otherwise we would all have to go through metal detectors. It would no longer be a church.”