Last month, members of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas experienced the deadliest church shooting in recent history. Twenty-six people were killed.
Now the New Hampshire Council of Churches is sponsoring a training event tomorrow in Nashua on how congregations should respond to an active shooter.
Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Rev. Jason Wells, the executive director of the council.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
Several churches across the state have already signed up for this event that you’re holding on Saturday. In fact, so many that the event has been moved to a larger room to accommodate everyone that wants to attend. Why do you think so many church leaders are interested in this training?
Yes, there’s already well over 100 people signed up from all corners of the state. Some of those who cannot make it to Nashua are asking for a second training to happen, say in the North Country of New Hampshire, maybe up in Lancaster or something like that. So it’s seeing broad interest from churches of all kinds. I think that there is a desire right now with the amount of news that there is about church shootings. You mentioned Sutherland Springs, but as we know with sadness that’s not the first one. I think of South Carolina at Emmanuel AME Church particularly. I think that congregations are asking some very hard questions about what does it mean to be a place of safety, which almost every church knows that is what God wants them to provide, a place of safety.
Of course. We think of a church as being a place of refuge.
Right, absolutely. So, we know that they answers that might satisfy us in other places, like metal detectors at an airports or other kinds of drills in businesses or schools, those things in a church just don’t sit right in the soul. They just kind of sit wrong in the gut. And so I think there’s a desire to talk about these questions in a forum, particularly with some detectives who have expertise. And they’ll be walking through some scenarios so that we can actively reduce fear in those situations and help people make safer and better choices.
Was this something that was considered before Sutherland Springs, or was that a particular turning point for you?
These are questions that pastors have been talking about. This is not the first time that we’ve had this kind of news story come up. And it’s not that congregations have wrestled with even the questions of concealed carry and open carry within their congregations as those laws and norms change in the state.
As we were saying, when you think of safe places, churches would typically top the list. But is that perception, do you think, is that changing at all with this increase in mass shootings that we’ve seen over recent years?
Yes and no. I would think that our churches by and large continue to be places of safety and refuge. I think of the kinds of fear and bias that set into us in a separate area like when we hear a news story of a plane crash. We hear of a disaster that happens. It’s sad. We try to make sure those things never happen again. And yet at the same time, air travel is very safe. Many planes take off and land with thousands of passengers every day, and there is nothing to fear. I think that stories like this, they distort our ability to make good judgments, and that we feel that we are unsafe when in fact, congregations worships week in and week out with thousands of members, and they are the places of safety and refuge that they claim to be. And I think that this will help us to ensure that we have good practices in place, that we have ways of reducing fear when disaster does come, and that when we make better judgment calls because were not afraid, we’ll be actually increasing the amount of safety within our church communities.
Sure, I think that’s a great point. You know, fear and perception are not always aligned with reality, and often aren’t. And of course when hear about stories in the media, and you see something like a major story like that, a major tragedy, splashed over and played back over, and over, and over again for hours upon hours, I think there’s a rising tension. There seems to be a rising level of fear in the populace in general where maybe there shouldn’t be, or doesn’t match up with the numbers.
That’s right. If there’s fear and panic, we know that the situation becomes more dangerous than it otherwise would be. Sometimes we run fire drills on a Sunday morning just so that in the event of a disaster, we make good choices from the perspective of safety and peace rather than of fear.
When you do talk about an active shooter situation, I’m wondering how you reassure people as they come through those doors.
I actually think that sometimes it is the best thing to be able to communicate that as a church, as a congregation, as a faith community, we’ve asked the hard questions, and that there are steps we’re taking.