Houses of worship are seen as sanctuaries, but people of faith must plan for those who intend to harm churches, temples and synagogues.
By Jennifer Webb-McCrae
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Planning for security threats at our houses of worship is necessary.
As I was growing up, church always felt like a sanctuary to me. It was where I attended Sunday school, did much of my socializing and where some of my most important rites of passage occurred.
The first time I thought of church as a place of vulnerability was in the abstract. I was a teenager studying the civil rights movement and learned about the four little girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. It happened before I was born, but it resonated with me.
The first incident that made me aware of church vulnerability, and occurred during my lifetime, was when I watched the national news chronicle a mass shooting at a gurdwara called the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where
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Since that time, there have been other such incidents. In 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine people attending Bible study at the the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Last year’s First Baptist Church mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killed 26 people and ranks as one of the most deadly mass shootings of any kind in America. This are just two of many that can be cited.
For most people, our house of worship will remain as a sanctuary; a place of refuge and safety. Nonetheless, people of faith must plan to address those who intend to harm or disrupt our churches, temples and synagogues. This means preparing for the previously unimaginable — active shooters, bomb threats, vandalism, arson, theft, chemical/biological attacks, and incidents stemming from domestic violence.
Security measures should be a combination of bolstering “soft assets”and strengthening “hard assets.” Bolstering soft assets include things like training clergy and congregants to identify suspicious persons and activity, creating a procedure for worshippers to report threatening behavior, and planning what to do in an emergency. Strengthening hard assets can include things like installing security and surveillance equipment, limiting physical access to facilities during services, and creating safe areas where individuals can shelter in place or lock down during an emergency.
The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, in collaboration with the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, has planned a church security program for Tuesday, Oct. 2, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Cumberland County College’s Guaracini Performing Arts Center. We will deliver active-shooter response training, as well as introducing a self-assessment tool to help local facilities begin preparing for a security threat.
I am sorry that we live in a time where preparing for violence in houses of worship has become a necessity. However, just as the students of the 1950s and 1960s practiced for nuclear disaster, and our children today participate in active-shooter drills at school, training for the once-unimaginable in the religious spaces where we find sanctuary is necessary today. I hope to see as many churches as possible send representatives to the very important Oct. 2 program.
Jennifer Webb-McRae is the Cumberland County prosecutor.
Registration is required for the Oct. 2 session and may be completed online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cumberland-county-church-security-program-tickets-46735121005, or by calling 856-453-0486, Ext. 23106 and leaving a name and telephone number.
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