Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sanctuary - Part II

There must, must be sustained commentary around the recent church shooting in Colorado. There is so much that is deeply disturbing about this issue. First and foremost in my mind is the presence of an armed security guard who killed the gunman. In one AP article this person "is hailed for saving countless lives in shooting a gunman outside her church". Her acts as saviour are recounted in several articles. This event has also fed into America's Homeland Defense Machine explored in another AP article. Here are a few excerpts.

Churches want to present an open and welcoming image, but in an era of mass-casualty shootings and terrorism threats, the violence at New Life highlights a new emphasis on security. Some of the nation's estimated 1,200 megachurches — places where more than 2,000 worshippers gather each week — have been quietly beefing up security in recent years, even using armed guards to protect the faithful.

Meanwhile, many more, often smaller congregations typically don't have detailed security plans because they don't have the money or don't want to risk turning people away.

At Potter's House, a Dallas megachurch led by star pastor T.D. Jakes, a private security company employs a team of armed, unarmed, uniformed and plainclothes guards that keep watch over crowds in the thousands. Under a new Texas law, all nonprofits must use licensed security guards, and the church hired Classic Security in response, said Sean Smith, who formerly led the church's security detail and now works for the company.

For the past three years, Potter's House has hosted a church security conference, drawing more than 400 people this year to sessions on surveillance, background checks and other issues. Although precautions can be costly, money spent on security can end up being far less than liability and lawsuit risks if no action is taken, the church says.

"You see (security) anywhere but churches," Smith said. "You see it in malls, at banks, at concerts. Somehow, at churches we feel immune to violence. But it's been proven not to be the case."

Even without a security department, churches can train volunteers to keep watch for suspicious behavior, such as a visitor dressed in a long coat in summer or not making eye contact with anyone, Smith said.

The security plan at New Life Church may seem extraordinary. The church's volunteer security force is stocked with people with military or law enforcement experience, they carry radios and weapons, and there are evacuation plan calls for hustling worshippers into "secure zones" in the case of emergencies.

I am not sure what is worse armed guards at churches or churches not having them because they don't want to turn people off. Are those the only two views? That churches are one of the only places where you don't see guards is a great opportunity to explore its unique social space but is here restricted to the idea that we are simply being naive. Where once we could perhaps look on "suspicious behaviour" as the context for witnessing to the grace offered in our faith it is now the criteria for confinement and judgment prior even to crime. And perhaps theologically most profound is the concept of moving people out of the sanctuary into "secure zones". That the space of communing with the One to whom is the "kingdom, the power and the glory" is less secure than that created by the boundaries of humans is cause for needed reflection.
Now this of course was no ordinary church under attack. This was the church founded by Ted Haggard. Hear some of the responses by church members and leaders.

"Even back then (when Haggard was pastor) we had people undercover in the congregation who were armed," Dodd said. "It was a big church at the time, it was Christian, and some people really hate that stuff.

"Not only do we have military and ex-military all over, we have this sort of frontier mentality. People around here are serious about protecting their own."

. . .

Assam, the security guard, had attended the church's early worship service at 9 a.m., then stood watch in the rotunda of as the second service was letting out.

There, she confronted the gunman, identified as 24-year-old Matthew Murray. Murray managed to two kill two sisters and wound their father and two others before he was killed. At a news conference Monday, Assam said that she prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide her, and that her hands never shook.

"It seemed like it was me, the gunman and God," Assam said.

Speaking of the church's security plan, Boyd said: "That's the reality of our world." He stressed that all armed guards are licensed and screened.

And with respect to the larger political response.

The Homeland Security Department created a grant program of nearly $50 million to improve security for religious and secular nonprofits considered at risk of terrorist attack.

Several groups have received individual grants, according to Homeland Security officials.

The Fellowship of the Woodlands megachurch in Texas employs a former FBI agent as a full-time security director, overseeing volunteers and paid staff, said pastor Kerry Shook. Those who are armed in the congregation are police officers, he said.

"It's something you just have to do today," said Shook, whose congregation draws 15,600 people per weekend. "We want everyone to feel safe. At the same time, we want to be open and accepting of everyone. An incident like this one in Colorado Springs just reinforces what the church is — we have to be a light in a dark world."

It is difficult to understand how you are being a light when you are simply producing the same reality as the culture around you unless of course you believe that your culture is the light of the world. And I do suppose this is the thinking here.

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