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In wake of Texas church mass shooting, Southern Illinois churches work to improve safety

MARION — Cindy Jean's church, Liberty Free Will Baptist Church, is a small one in rural Williamson County, a small, open church with three entrances.

As she listened to presenters talk during a workshop on Saturday about how to make churches more secure from a possible hostile intruder, she thought about her church and realized her congregation might need representatives with the Williamson County Sheriff's Office to visit and give suggestions for enhancing security.

Jean was among about 100 people from 26 churches throughout the region who attended Saturday's three-hour workshop at Zion United Church of Christ in Marion; the church security workshop was led by Williamson County Sheriff's Deputy Brian Murrah and Det. Jason Serles, who talked about ways to protect their congregations and the need to have a plan for dealing with various situations.

The sheriff's office has planned a second church security workshop for 6 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 11; the time and place are to be determined after the number of registered people is known.

Jean said she was most impressed by the men's focus on communication and having a plan in place before one would be needed.

"I do think it's awesome — they put a lot of thought into it," Jean said of the presentation. "I think awareness is key; to me, communication and planning ahead. Like he (Murrah) said, the 'what-ifs,' you got to think about. The world has changed, a lot. You got to think ahead."

Texas shooting raises awareness

Though the idea for this workshop had been around for awhile, it was September's deadly shooting at a Texas church that finally propelled it into existence.

In that incident, a single man entered a First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting at worshipers as they prepared for the morning service; 26 people, including a woman who was pregnant, died in the shooting; the shooter later fatally shot himself after a police pursuit. 

The workshop organizers partnered with Ronda Koch, director of emergency preparedness for the Franklin/Williamson Bi-County Health Department, to put on the workshop.

Murrah and Serles encouraged those attending the workshop to just think about what they would do in various situations, not to overthink it, but just to consider what they would do in certain situations. They also noted that the church community, for the most part, was acting in denial, as if nothing of that sort could happen to it.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

About 100 people representing 25 churches attended a workshop concerning church safety held at Zion United Church of Christ in Marion on Saturday.

By way of comparison, Murrah said there had been no children to die in school fires in almost the past half century, in part because of the proactive efforts:  advocacy that has equipped schools with lit exit signs that point the way out of a building, even in a fire; fire codes that govern the use of fire doors and other security measures; and periodic fire drills.

Just as the April 1999 shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School drew attention to the need for security in schools, so might the Texas church shooting lead to an overhaul in how churches work to protect their congregations from threats of violence.

While people might think a mass shooting would never happen on their church campus, church communities are not strangers to issues over child custody or familial disagreements. A familial disagreement, Murrah noted, was said to have spurred the Texas gunman to the church where his mother-in-law, with whom he'd been in conflict, worshiped.

Understanding dynamics

The men opened the workshop comparing people to part of the animal kingdom, borrowing from a book written by the man credited with developing a proactive approach to preventing and minimizing violence: The wolves, Murrah noted, are individuals who prey on others; sheep are the people; and the sheepdogs are those who protect the herd of sheep from the wolves.

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Deputy Brian Murrah of the Williamson County Sheriff's Department leads a workshop about church safety held at Zion United Church of Christ in Marion on Saturday.

Murrah stressed that churches needed to focus on creating security ministries that were focused on just that — ministry, not on stealth or ninja combat or walking around in dark glasses, peering at people they deemed suspicious.

In fact, he noted that anyone seeming overly gregarious about going after the "bad guy" would probably not be the best fit for the security ministry.

Referring to research, Murrah said suggested church security members maintain a presence outside the building, in the parking lot, greeting people to the church; inside the building, in the church's lobby or greeting area; and inside the sanctuary or worship space.

"You're doing a couple of things," Murrah said, particularly of the outside presence. "You're putting a friendly, greeting-type person out there and the people with good (intentions) are going to appreciate that, and you're putting somebody out there who's got just a little bit more awareness, that's keeping an eye on things, and if they see somebody that may be just a little questionable go up and say 'hi' to them. Good-intentioned people will like that, bad-intentioned people will be uncomfortable."

"Now, again, it's not a matter of going up to them saying, 'Hey, I don't know you. What are you doing there?'" Murrah said. "Secret Service is not a part of this."

He also gave the gathering an overview of the "stereotypical mass shooter," saying that person has typically determined that he or she will shoot up or harm as many people as he or she can, and has likely determined he or she will take his or her own life rather than be taken into police custody.

"If we're looking at the stereotypical mass murderer, active shooter event, bad guys will come out and scout a time or two ahead of time," Murrah said. "They don't ever go into a building that they've never been in. When you look at it, there's a lot of homework, a lot of planing that goes into this. … So if that is your main concern, folks, have somebody come out, look them in the eye, shake their hand, (say), 'Hi, how are you, can I help you find somebody,' and that much attention is going to be enough to tell them this is not the soft target that we're looking for and they will go somewhere else."

"Again, it's not a bouncer thing," Murrah said. "It's a welcoming thing."

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Zion United Church of Christ in Marion was the site for a workshop about church safety presented by the Williamson County Sheriff's Department on Saturday.

One of the things that Jean said she was also struck by was how the presenters gave the OK for churches to just continue doing the work of their ministries, with an enhanced layer of awareness.

"It was a lot of information presented very well," said Wes Bennett, representing Redemption Church, outside of Johnston City. "I think it's something that a lot of churches are going to have to re-examine, some of the security measures that they do have in place and implement some security measures they don't have in place. Obviously, sometimes that's gonna run into a cost (such as buying locks for doors, installing security cameras or acquiring communications systems and devices). I think observance and being vigilant was one of the main things (that they talked about that was key)."

Andre Baker, who heads the security ministry at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Carbondale, said it was good to see that there were some things his church already had in place, such as a presence outside the church and in its parking lot.

Another guest, who said he was from a church in Murphysboro, said the segment about simply being aware of people was key.

Jean agreed.

"Be yourself," she said. "It still is a church ministry … so go ahead and do your church ministry, just add that extra awareness."

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12th Congressional District
A 27-year-old Libertarian former model from Benton is challenging Bost in the 12th District GOP primary

BENTON — A Benton man is challenging Mike Bost for the Republican nomination in the race to represent the 12th Congressional District.

Preston Nelson, a former model and missionary, is hoping to take Bost’s seat in the 12th District, and to use the position to start conversations that he said are not being had within the established political system in Washington.

Nelson wants to walk back what he sees as a heavy-handed military, reduce spending in order to reduce the national debt — which includes eliminating the Federal Reserve — as well as preserve and return the freedoms he sees as indelible to American citizens.

The rhetoric on Nelson’s website and media materials is staunchly anti-establishment.

An avowed Libertarian at heart, Nelson said he sees deregulation as a primary way to both boost liberty and corporate revenue. A way to achieve part of this goal, Nelson said, would be to eliminate or make a voluntary agency of the Food and Drug Administration. He pointed to the hypocrisy of an agency that approves both cigarettes and unhealthy food, both of which he said kill people yearly. He also said the FDA often makes products more expensive to the consumer.

Instead of creating barriers to the public through regulation, Nelson said consumers should be the barometer of success. He said should a product harm someone, then a lawsuit would hold the company accountable.

“We need to hold people accountable,” he said, adding that the legal system was a form of free-market accountability.

“If there are good contract laws and good laws supporting the rights of people then companies aren’t going to knowingly poison us,” Nelson said.

In his biography on his website, Nelson said he began work teaching English in Brazil — he later became a model there, as well — while on a missionary trip. He said this experience working as an “undocumented worker” gave him sympathy for undocumented workers here. He said he believes immigration has historically been a good thing for the U.S. economy, but said an open border is also not the answer.

“It should be more simple. That said, we definitely need controls on who is coming in,” he said. Nelson said as for those already here, he sees aggressive deportation as acceptable for those who have broken U.S. laws while in the country.

“Definitely felons but anyone who has had trouble with the law or gotten in trouble, they should probably go home,” Nelson said.

Nelson is also passionate about criminal justice, which he said disproportionately targets minorities and the poor. He said much of the problems facing law enforcement now stem from their enforcement of laws that are meaningless.

“I think the police should be more concerned with violence than with traffic violations,” Nelson said. Responding to recent protests over deaths of minorities at the hands of police officers, Nelson said he thought less lethal force and more nonlethal options would be a good idea.

When speaking about his opponent, Nelson said he is not against Bost specifically, though he does see an opportunity, citing what he sees as Bost’s poor reception in the district.

“He’s not the worst person. He’s not a liberal trying to socialize our lives,” Nelson said. However, Nelson did criticize Bost for not speaking out against war.

When asked if there was anyone on Capitol Hill he admired, he couldn’t come up with a solid answer. Some policies of Rand Paul were attractive, but beyond that, he didn’t land on anyone wholesale.

“It’s kind of hard to say … it’s hard to know people’s hearts,” he said.

He had similar things to say about President Donald Trump.

“You can’t know his heart. You don’t know if he’s just kind of phony, lying about things or if he’s sincere about what he says,” Nelson said, adding that he certainly disagrees with Trump’s early troop surge in the Middle East and his decision to make his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia.

At 27 years old, Nelson would be one of the youngest congressmen in Washington. As for his campaign, he said he will begin in earnest next month.

Nelson said he looks forward to hosting town halls in the district and to hopefully debating Bost next year.

Voters will head to the polls in the general primary on March 20. The 12th District includes the counties of Alexander, Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Monroe, Perry, Pulaski, Randolph, St. Clair, Union and Williamson, and part of Madison County.

ToddHefferman / TODD HEFFERMAN / The Southern 

Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill, South Carolina.