In November 2017, a stranger walked into a church in Sutherland, Texas with a rifle and other guns, killing 26 members and wounding 20 more. Ten years earlier, a similar horror visited Southwest Missouri.
In November 2017, a stranger walked into a church in Sutherland, Texas with a rifle and other guns, killing 26 members and wounding 20 more.
Ten years earlier, a similar horror visited Southwest Missouri.
On August 21, 2007, a man walked into the First Congregational Church in Neosho while a number of native Pacific Islanders from Micronesia were meeting shooting and killing senior pastor Kernel Rehobson, 43; church deacon Intenson Rehobson, 44; and church deacon Kuhpes “Jesse” Ikosia, 53. Four people were wounded.
Eiken Elam Saimon was convicted of three counts of first degree murder in this case and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.
These and other examples of shootings and homicides in churches across the country are prompting local churches to think about security.
Phil Rhoades, Superintendent of the Joplin District of the Church of the Nazarene, said the Texas shooting led him to call a meeting on Saturday at the Carthage First Church of the Nazarene where 250 people from 112 Nazarene Churches heard from former Joplin police officer and security trainer Grant LaVelle on steps they can take to improve security in their churches.
“My responsibility, I told our people at the front end, I said I never want to be the DS that has that happen to my district, so I'm going to do whatever I can to protect my people,” Rhoads said. “What we want to do is we want to create a safe environment for everyone who wants to attend church. We don't want people to come in fear. I think what people think is that will never happen here, but the reality is it could.”
Close to home
James Keezer, the pastor of the Neosho Church of the Nazarene, said the shooting in 2007 in Neosho hit close to home for him.
His church is less than a mile from the First Congregational Church and he and his staff started talking about what they would do if it had happened in their church.
Keezer said they contacted Grant LaVelle and his company, Maximum Life Expectancy Inc., to help them create a security plan.
“We took a group of five guys through training and was extremely impressed at how professional and how knowledgable and he helped us see a lot of things you wouldn't normally think of,” Keezer said. “Everything from security cameras to communication to first aid to triage. I think a lot of times people reduce security to people carrying guns and that's like reducing a carpenter to a man with a hammer. There is so much more to security than just having people that are armed.”
Keezer said his church budgets money every year for its security team to attend refresher training through LaVelle's company.
“Grant just helped us see the broader picture there,” Keezer said. “The sad reality is with every news story that shows another shooting in another town, is just reinforces how important of a need this is.”
Keezer said he wrestled for a time with whether a church member should use force against someone. He said some people use Jesus Sermon on the Mount, where he says people should “turn the other cheek,” when threatened to justify a pacifist attitude in churches, but Keezer disagrees.
“One thing that I think is often overlooked that isn't talked about, the whole idea of security in a church is nearly 3,000 years old,” Keezer said. “It's biblical, it's right out of the book of First Chronicles where the Lord instructed a group of men called Gatekeepers, I believe 212 individuals that their sole duty was to protect the tabernacle at that time, and then later the temple.”
LaVelle, a member of the Carterville Christian Church, said he talks about the Bible's teachings when it comes to protecting people in a church.
“There is Biblical evidence that says this is something that needs to happen, so I'm exposing that to those who aren't aware of those passages in scripture that talk about the use of force to protect others,” LaVelle said. “The heart and attitude we should have in that role is not a confrontational one from the aspect of responding out of hate or anger, we are there to protect out of love, and that mentality is a lot different than it can be in say a different element. That's a key component in the church is responding out of love.”
LaVelle said the Bible also says that hoping the problem will go away is not an option.
“We cannot stick our heads in the sand and expect that the world is going to get better,” He said. “The Bible is very clear that the world is going to continue to fall apart until Jesus Christ comes back again, and we're to be the light of the world, but we need to act. By acting, we are taking measures and steps to protect our flock, our church, our congregation through establishing a security team.”
What to do
LaVelle told the group that picking the right people within a congregation for a team is vital.
He also said making sure they are trained and equipped for their mission is very important as well.
“We have to challenge those men to stay in the faith and develop themselves both spiritually and physically to be equipped for the job,” LaVelle said. “I talk about policies. I don't get down into the specifics of how the policies should look exactly because every church entity is a little bit different, size and scope and ability. There are some small churches in Carthage and Joplin, and their ability is going to be limited, but they're not going to have these massive facilities to guard either. It's all a matter of context, we have to carve out our little niche in the world and the people that come to worship in our little niche, they need to feel safe.”
LaVelle said he's a firm advocate of conceal and carrying a handgun and he carries one in church. The key, however is discretion.
“I don't want to discourage people from coming to church because they see me toting around a bazooka,” LaVelle said. “That's not my goal, the gun comes after my relationship and service to God, so I have to make that as discrete as possible. It has to be there in this role, because how else am I going to be able to stop an armed homicidal maniac if I don't have the means to stop him. But my role is much bigger than that, I'm part door greeter, I'm part helping the elderly in and out of their car or into the building or whatever they need.”
A new concept
The Nazarene District Superintendent Phil Rhoades asked the representatives attending the event how many of them have a security plan in their churches.
Of the 112 churches represented, only the people from only two churches raised their hand. One of those churches was the Carthage church, which has security cameras, a security team and plans in place for many scenarios.
John Teel, worship pastor at the Carthage Church, said the church's size, with around 600 people in the building every Sunday, made planning for the worst essential.
“To not make a decision is essentially to make a decision,” Teel said. “So we want to be proactive in this case and have measures in place. We believe too that it can be part of our hospitality of our church, as people come to visit here and they're looking for a church home, we want for them to feel safe and secure and know that we take the safety of their children very seriously.”
Teel said the church is aware that some people do have conceal-and-carry permits in the church. He said some members of the security team carry firearms, and their conceal and carry permits are on file in the church.
Teel said the Texas church shooting prompted his staff to review its security, and the Jan. 13 meeting with LaVelle was very helpful.
“This event was rich in knowledge and I know it has been a lot of help, especially to the smaller churches in the rural areas and rural communities,” Teel said. “We have to constantly be assessing our situation because as we grow, our needs will increase. One of these days we may have to look at hired security, hired help, to augment what we already have in place, so we're just beginning to have those conversations.”