The day after a gunman massacred 26 worshippers in a small Baptist church in rural south Texas, Clif Cummings, the associate pastor of Sugar Creek Baptist Church in Sugar Land, worried about the small congregations in his community.
Cummings, who is also the senior chaplain with the Fort Bend County First Responder Chaplains Association, knew that his large church had visibly armed uniformed and undercover officers in his congregation. He wondered about others and started making calls.
Sheriff Troy Nehls was already meeting to create an action plan, which resulted in a recent gathering of 145 pastors and church leaders at the Gus George Law Enforcement Academy looking for answers at the “Active Shooter Awareness Seminar for Places of Worship.”
This wasn’t the first time a gunman destroyed lives in a church and it likely won’t be the last time, authorities said. Bottom line: congregations need to make a plan and practice it.
Authorities told the audience that Fort Bend County law enforcement, including Missouri City and Sugar Land police departments, were willing to come to any church and assess their security situation.
In addition to prayer circles, women’s groups and youth ministries, congregations need to have a security committee that includes members of the church who may be first responders or in security. They need to identify security deficiencies, consider alarms and monitors, learn how to shelter in place, and practice worst-case scenarios with their congregation, police said.
They also need to consider that with police response times of at least three minutes, church members may have to combat the threat themselves.
“A lot can happen in three minutes,” said Lt. Wayne Hastedt who proceeded to rattle off a series of questions he said church leaders should consider. “Are firearms allowed at your church? Do you have first aid kits with quick clot sponges? Giving first aid can save a life. Do you have handheld radios, a plan for contacting emergency personnel? Do you have knowledge of your congregation? Are you aware of domestic situations and protective orders?”
The Sutherland Springs gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of domestic violence and sent threatening text to family members who attended the church, according to authorities.
Sometimes the threat comes from within.
“Does the church have an internal problem resolution procedure? Even though it’s church, there are times we won’t get along. Is there a situation in place where you’re sure it’s resolved?” asked the lieutenant.
As he spoke, somber-faced members of the audience shook their heads, conferred with their group and took notes.
“I think it’s sad we have to do this. It’s a sad state of affairs that we have to get together as religious people from all cultures to address this. But when you see all those crosses (at Sutherland Springs) your hair stands up,” Nehls said during a break.
They stopped talking to show a brief and graphic film of an active shooter in an office setting. The opening scenes of everyday office life with phones ringing, coffee gatherings and meetings are disrupted by the sound of screams and chaos as a gunman walks through shooting at random leaving blood-stained fallen bodies in his wake until people fight. The message in the film is to run, hide and fight.
Sgt. William Bennett said additional messages are to listen to your gut because you get a feeling when something bad is about to happen. He focused on the fight.
In most churches, the door is at the back and the congregation is facing the altar. There may be one or two ways out of the room but it’s likely the way the gunman entered. This was no turn-the-other-cheek message.
“A gunman is outnumbered. If I rush and 50 of you rush with me, we’ll save a lot of lives. There is something in the Bible about that,” said Bennett. “Do not fight fair. Take off your heels ladies and attack the weak spots. Use whatever is at your disposal,” he said. Fight for your life depends on it because it does.”
They did not recommend playing dead.
“You’re not dealing with a bear, but a coward with a gun who could not resolve issues. They no longer see us as a human, you may be a zombie in a video game or an animal and they will shoot you multiple times. Move toward the threat, toward the killing and stop it,” the sheriff said.
The officers asked for a show of hands of those with a licensed to carry a handgun, but the sheriff noted that if they don’t regularly train under stressful conditions that doesn’t mean much. That’s why an initial deterrent of an armed presence, even of moonlighting officers working traffic, can make a difference.
“If you wait for us to show up, it’s too late,” Nehls said. “You have to have someone on your security team who is willing to say, ‘I’m the shepherd. These are my sheep. No one bothers my sheep.’”