HERRIN — Jason McKinnies is hoping his church membership takes well the news that backpacks, large bags and other items where a gun or weapon could be hidden might be subject to being searched.
Also, that a uniformed police officer will now be on site.
Meeting days after Sunday's deadly shooting at a small church in Texas, McKinnies, who pastors the Southern Illinois Worship Center in Herrin, and his leadership team are determined to stave off any unforeseeable danger of this type.
"I do not want to be that pastor that says, 'I didn't think it would happen here'," McKinnies said. "We need to prepare for and pray to God that it never happens.”
He is not alone in his search for that new balance. More than a handful of other pastors and faith leaders in the region turned their attention this week to finding ways to gird up their own campuses and keep their congregations safe. They're also discussing whether or not to allow or encourage licensed security teams or members to carry concealed weapons into the church and on its grounds.
As Pastor Ronald Chambers, of Bethel AME Church in Carbondale, noted, "Not on my watch." He met with members of his board this week, too, to discuss church security.
Sunday's deadly mass murder at the small First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, tore again at the idea that churches are safe havens, places where people — particularly strangers and those who don't attend church regularly — are welcomed, leading some to have conversations and make plans they never thought they would need to have.
This past Sunday, a 26-year-old man armed himself and opened fire on the Texas church, apparently determined to kill everyone in sight. In the end, 26 people — men, women and eight children — were killed, and the gunman, shot at least twice by a bystander who pursued him, is believed to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
On that same day, there was another fatal shooting at a church. This one happened at St. Alphonsus Church in Fresno, California, where a man, whose wife had recently filed for divorce, fired into the vehicle in which she and her apparent new love interested were riding.
The man shot both people in the head. His wife died at the scene, the man, later at the hospital.
Police went to the home of the estranged husband, who apparently shot himself in the head. Investigators say he'd texted the couple's daughter about what he had done.
The notion of church security and insecurity came to the forefront in June 2015, after Dylann Roof walked into the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, opening fire on the small group inside. He came to the church, and joined in its Bible study. As the group closed their eyes to pray, Roof opened fire, killing nine and injuring three others.
This past Tuesday, he was sentenced to death by a Charleston jury, who unanimously chose that option instead of life in prison.
These two incidents grabbed the headlines, but shootings at churches are becoming more common. In September, a 25-year-old man killed one woman and wounded six others at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee, about 18 miles southeast of Nashville. An usher held the man at gunpoint until police arrived.
From January 1999 to December 2015, there have been more than 626 people killed and more than 694 injured in churches, according to Sheepdog Church Security, which quotes research from Carl Chinn. The group notes that more than half of those deaths occurred during a five-year period from 2011 to 2015.
Sheepdog Church Security was created by Kris P. Moloney, a police officer and retired Army chaplain who volunteers in church security. He writes guides to help churches and their security teams work to keep their environments safe from intruders and other threats, including natural disasters and threats from sexual predators.
The challenge is conflict
Some of this week's conversations have been uneasy, a local law enforcement official and some faith leaders say.
After all, how do they balance keeping their congregations and buildings safe from those who want to harm them, while making sure their business and mission — welcoming the stranger and those who often feel dejected — are fulfilled?
That's the quagmire.
"The churches are being put in a very awkward position," said McKinnies, whose conversation included the terms "soft target" and "hard target." "How do we protect our parishioners and keep them safe while they worship? … We’ve always had a security team … but we’ve ramped them up.”
Laurie Anne Fields, the newly installed pastor at Harrisburg First Presbyterian Church, said the doors of her church will be open and the congregation welcoming to strangers, as usual.
"I also encourage my congregation to extend a gracious welcome to all who come to our doors, recognizing that all are God’s children and to be treated with love and respect," she wrote in an email. "None of this has changed. There are risks of violence in any gathering of people, including churches. This is not new and will always be a reality."
In her response, she called the risks of violence "quite small."
"I believe that our faith calls us to live in hope and trust and not in fear," she continued.
That conflict has also been heard this week at the Williamson County Sheriff's Office.
“They want to learn more, but they’re still on the fence about it, just because it’s something completely new for the churches in the area,” said Deputy Brian Murrah, a public information officer for the Williamson County Sheriff's Office. “We’re fortunate that most of our churches have not been faced with this kind of problem. It’s new … anything new is scary.”
In the coming weeks, though, that "new" and "scary" thing will be tried.
Herrin Police Chief Quinn Laird announced that his department would be offering active shooter training classes to Herrin-area churches desiring it. The Williamson County Sheriff's Office will also finally be hosting a church security workshop from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, at a site to be announced.
Those interested in attending are asked to call beforehand so organizers can determine how large a meeting space to secure.
In Perry County, Sheriff Steve Bareis, experienced in active shooter response and church safety team training, said he had a call about training. He has already worked with two other churches in active shooter training.
Monday, the day following the deadly Texas church shooting, an employee with the Franklin/Williamson Bi-County Health Department contacted the Williamson County Sheriff's Office; after some discussions, both parties agreed to host the church safety workshop, Murrah said.
Carbondale Police Department has sent correspondence to a number of churches, with a goal of getting information to all of the city;s's churches, according to a department spokeswoman. We also made the information available at a recent chamber of commerce meeting a couple of weeks ago.
The department also has certified instructors available who have provided or are in the process of providing instruction/training to churches, schools and businesses, Police Chief Jeff Grubbs said through a spokeswoman.
The training is not just geared toward active shooter incidents but also includes information on how to prepare for and respond to any number of critical incidents and overall safety planning, Grubbs reported.
Williamson County workshop overview
During the workshop, organizers plan to discuss ways that churches are vulnerable and their options for defending themselves in any kind of threatening situation, such as an active shooter scenario.
One area that Herrin's McKinnies sees as a vulnerability is the time between worship services, such as the transitional times when a morning service or Sunday school might be ending and another one starting.
Even as Murrah has talked to church officials who know they need to know more, he said he has experienced their reluctance to having to have such talks.
The event will not include any sort of active-shooter scenario, although the Williamson County Sheriff's Office is there to help churches with those, or refer them to their local law enforcement agency, Murrah said.
The workshop presenters are not telling people what to do, but are encouraging worship centers to have a plan, he said.
“We talk quite a bit about mindset and how human beings are made and these are things you need to talk about ahead of time,” Murrah said. “If you find yourself in a stressful spot, you’re not going to be able to think clearly. …You’ll revert back to what you’ve been trained or taught, and that applies to football players and police officers ...
"The reason that you practice or train or think things through is that when you become exposed to any stress, you fall back on (that rehearsed reaction)," he said. "The reason why you practice or train is so that you have that (reaction) to fall back on.”
Organizations like Sheepdog, however, say churches need to plan for "violent intruders."
"Safety ministries need to plan and train so they will be prepared to deal with the situation until law enforcement arrives," the organization's website says.
Murrah said the Dec. 2 session will also talk about church ministry security teams and security services, which he noted are two separate entities.
Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Carbondale has a Security Ministry and has met with the Carbondale Police Department for advice on enhancing its church security, but Sunday's shooting calls for updates, Pastor Chris Swims said.
For instance, the church has a plan in place for dealing with domestic issues that could spill over into the church, he said.
"We have a procedure, but it needs to be adjusted," Swims said. "Meaning getting training for our staff. Situations like this causes me to move with urgency to solidify a permanent plan."
The church offers a class, called Emotional Healthy Spirituality, and professional counselors who are part of the church leadership team.
"My heart is heavy regarding the entire situation," Swims ssid. "It could’ve been a church in Southern Illinois, it could’ve been a church in Carbondale, it could’ve been Hopewell."
Law enforcement — like Perry County Sheriff Steve Bareis — advise churches to adopt and train a team.
"I advise that each church develop a team of individuals that will look for suspicious behavior and someone that walks the parking lot during service and educational times," Bareis shared in an email. "Churches often use greeters to welcome people as they come into the church. I recommend that these greeters are trained as well to alert congregations of anything suspicious or dangerous."
Those who attend the Dec. 2 workshop will learn about the ALICE model of defense proposed by a Dallas/Fort Worth-area police officer concerned about the safety of his wife, a school teacher, after the Columbine school shooting. Greg and Lisa Crane created the model, after Greg was concerned that the school district his wife worked for made her and others easy targets, as they sat and waited and prayed to be rescued by law enforcement.
"(ALICE's) vision is to empower all citizens with the skills and knowledge to respond when shots are fired," the company says on its website. "If the police cannot be there in time to help, the next best thing is to prepare our civilian population to help themselves until public safety arrives."
The acronym for ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — empowers those in those situations to choose options for their own safety.
In addition to this model, insurers like Church Mutual provide active shooter resources and videos to their members.
Pastor Robert Morwell, of First United Methodist Church in Carterville, says he is reacting cautiously; he said he has not yet met with his governing board, but did receive an email and video on church security from a church insurance company that he will likely watch.
Morwell said he does not support congregation members arming to defend themselves, preferring to leave that work to law enforcement. His congregation has 150 to 200 members; the church's doors are locked during the day, allowing access during daytime hours with a buzzer. The church, which runs an after-school program for community youth, also installed security cameras about a year ago, he said. The church does not have a security ministry or team.
He said while people might be supportive of people like the Texas man who confronted the Texas church assassin, he said, in reality, folks have no idea how they would respond.
"Sometimes, I think people imagine that in such a situation, they think they’re going to react as coolly as a member of SEAL Team Six," Morwell said. "There’s no guarantee that person won’t shoot the wrong individual… It is a complex situation."
"Again, we want to be reasonably cautious to take thoughtful precautions, but not get in a panic about this," Morwell said. "We need to keep it in perspective. This was one incident, and it is tragic and alarming, but again, we need to keep it in perspective.”
Ultimately, the church has to fall back on its faith, McKinnies said.
“We need to know how we rise up is we fall to our knees," McKinnies said. "The church has to remain open, it has to be a place that is a refuge from despair and people have to be able to come to church and to feel safety … and to give their heart to God."