Members at a local church in Northridge said they’re not worried about potential violence at their congregation.
Despite the string of church shootings since 2003, and an even more staggering increase of them within the past year, employees at the Northridge United Methodist Church don’t feel they are at risk.
“I don’t think we’re concerned about security here,” said Pastor Stan Ferguson. “But, there are probably some churches in some areas that if I was there, I’d think, ‘Well how are we going to do this security thing?’”
And he’s right.
Many churches across the country have considered options to better prepare themselves for potential violence at their places of worship.
On June 15 2009, 15 churches from around the Southland area attended an inter-faith intruder response course in Garden Grove, the same city that is home to the well-known Crystal Cathedral. Earlier this year, Steve Smick walked into the cathedral, knelt down in front of a cross and shot himself in the head, police reports said. He had handed his suicide note to a greeter when he first walked in.
This is the second tragedy at the church. In 2004, the long-time conductor shot and killed himself after an argument with another church employee and a nine-hour standoff with police.
According to the Web site for the course, www.intruderresponse.com/training-church.html, these seminars take place all over the country and are meant to help congregations, “start up [their] church’s security ministry.”
But, Katherine Stanfill, director of Christian education for the Northridge United Methodist Church, says she isn’t afraid at their congregation.
Neither is Joan Coston, the church’s facilities director and office manager.
She shook her head. “I’m not afraid here on Sunday,” she said.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” said Ferguson.
Their confidence is comforting, but it doesn’t mean that churches in the Northridge area are necessarily immune to violence.
Driving down any road in Northridge, one will notice a plethora of churches. Right after turning on to Balboa Boulevard, there are three churches, all different denominations, within a few hundred feet of each other.
In other words, there are lots of opportunities for violent episodes.
Stanfill isn’t fearful at her church, but she said other churches do attract more controversy. She mentioned a Santa Monica church where she used to work.
“We had tons of homeless people coming in and they all wanted something,” she said. “They were very needy. And sometimes the pastor just wouldn’t come out to talk to them, which I don’t know if I agree with or not.”
She said many times members of churches exalt the clergy, such as pastors, to an almost God-like level, forgetting that they are human too.
“In some churches, the pastor is like a rock star,” she said.
This kind of idolization of church leaders, along with their fallible human qualities, can lead to disappointment in church members who rely too much on the clergy for support.
“People know they have access to somebody who will listen to them or care about them, and where normally the rest of society closes the door,” she said. “When they’re let down and they see kind of that human side [of pastors] when they make mistakes, it’s painful for people because they put all their trust in them.”
Ferguson thinks many of these violent episodes in churches reflect unhealthy frustration.
“As far as all these cases, I’m only aware of a couple of reasons why these people have committed violence,” he said. “And each time it’s an inappropriate response to something that’s going on in their lives.”
This is true for the most part. Many of these shootings happen as a result of somebody down on his or her luck. From the breakdown of a family to economic hardships, the circumstances vary.
The incident involving a man who shot and killed two people in a Tennessee church last July during a children’s performance of the play “Annie,” was unemployed.
But, a note that police found after the shooting indicated another reason as well. The man claimed he hated the church’s liberal policies, which included accepting gay people.
These politically charged motivations have been seen in another shooting just this past May in Wichita, Kan.
A high profile late-term abortion doctor, George Tiller, was shot and killed during a Sunday service at his church in which he was an usher.
“Killing this abortion doctor in a place of worship really magnifies the feeling of resentment and the feeling of moral indignity,” said Rick Talbott, a professor of religious studies at CSUN and an expert on Christianity and Mediterranean religions. “I don’t think people need to consciously run that through their minds. They already intuitively know a church would be the ideal place to act out this violence.”
He said people realize carrying out violence in a church, or any place of religious worship, accentuates whatever message they want to convey.
“Religious places tend to be very provocative centers for violence in the world,” he said. “By attacking the holy place, or the symbolic place, you’re making a statement: either a religious statement that this is wrong, or also at the same time, a political statement.”
Whatever the motives behind these occurrences, the acknowledgement among many churches that security measures should be taken is evident in these inter-faith intruder response courses and through alternative methods.
Some churches already practice preventative violence.
“There are significant numbers of large churches in America that actually employ off-duty sheriffs or police officers who are licensed to carry a weapon to patrol the grounds,” said Talbott.
Of course, not all churches are open to this idea.
“Some churches, again because of their theological bent, would never agree to have an armed person on the premises, even to protect innocent members,” he said. “They would say, ‘Listen, we’ll just trust God, but we’re not going to resort to killing somebody in the name of God, even to protect ourselves.’”
He said it depends on the congregation and their beliefs.
Back at the Northridge United Methodist Church, Ferguson and Stanfill agree that churches should discuss this issue, but they don’t necessarily think armed police officers are the answer.
They suggest a more proactive approach to helping their members deal with stresses in a healthy way that may cause built-up frustration if neglected.
“I think people don’t look inside themselves. They want to blame somebody else,” said Stanfill. “I think the church can be an outlet for that.”
“I think the church needs to address, how do we respond to life?” said Ferguson. “How do we live a healthy life? So, this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Talbott said this attitude may be naïve since some of these acts are not about the individual’s suffering.
“These congregations that say, ‘Oh it hasn’t impacted us yet,’ I think it’s a little irresponsible,” he said. “I think they need to be prepared. How are they going to respond if someone targets them? What measures can they take to protect innocent people, but how far should they go? Should they hire off-duty police officers that would actually take someone’s life?”
Talbott doesn’t mean all churches in the area should go into a frenzy. But, they should realize they are at the heart of a political storm. They’re not just about religious worship anymore in this modern-day, secular climate.
“Coming to terms with this phenomenon, I think it’s very important that we understand religion plays a major role in animating or motivating people for right or for wrong, for good or for bad,” he said. “I think there’s still going to be continued episodes of violence.”