Unitarian Universalist congregations are taking steps to be better prepared for emergencies.
There is an image we have of ministers on Sunday morning gazing down from the pulpit, just loving the heck out of the gathered congregation. As the service gets under way, an aura of well-being permeates the room as shafts of sunlight stream through the windows.
And yet, there is more. Increasingly, ministers are not just embracing the congregations with loving kindness as they stand before them, sermon in hand—they are also scanning the room for signs of trouble. As one of the few people in the room who can see the faces of the congregation, they are alert to individuals who seem anxious or angry, who seem a little out of place, whose eyes and posture give away an inner torment.
This vigilance on Sunday mornings started before the horrific massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last November, but that event heightened it. “I am always scanning the room now,” says the Rev. Carolyn Patierno, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, Connecticut. “Every time the door opens—and we have three of them into the sanctuary—I’m watching like a hawk.” And it’s not just her. “Our worship chair says that she walks in every Sunday and says a silent prayer that we will all be safe. I am not the only one with a heightened sense of awareness on Sunday.”
There is good reason to be vigilant. In the past eighteen years there have been more than 1,600 “deadly force incidents” on the properties of faith-based organizations in this country, according to the Faith Based Security Network, a nonprofit that collects crime data and supports congregations in protecting themselves from harm.
These 1,600 incidents include everything from robberies to suicides to attacks stemming from religious and political bias. Only a few have occurred during an actual event such as worship, but those incidents tend to remain vivid in our memories: the two people killed at Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville in 2008; the six killed at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek in 2012; the nine killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; the twenty-six killed at First Baptist Church in Texas in 2017.
Are we safe on Sunday morning? For the most part, yes. The possibility that an armed intruder will burst through our doors when we are gathered in worship remains extremely remote. But what if? When you are part of a denomination such as ours that takes its social justice campaigns to the streets and into the media, there’s always the nagging awareness that some angry or fearful person might bring the fight to us.
The Rev. Julie Taylor thinks about this a lot. A Unitarian Universalist minister and a responder with the UU Trauma Response Ministry (UUTRM), Taylor goes around the country teaching congregations how to be safe. Requests for advice spiked after Texas, she says. “Security is definitely on people’s minds.” For $600 and travel costs, the UUTRM, formed in 2002, will come and conduct a workshop and a walk-through to identify problem areas.
“This is the kind of thing that’s important to do at any time, but it mainly gets attention when there’s an attack in the news,” Taylor says. “I see it as a stewardship issue—taking the best care of our resources and our people. Even if an attack by an armed intruder is low on your list of worries, the UUTRM can help with preparation for many other safety issues, such as fire, medical emergencies, and natural disasters.”
Patierno’s congregation brought in another UUTRM responder, the Rev. Aaron Payson, several years ago. Following his visit, All Souls put a system into place to increase its security for worship and other events. Ushers were trained in CPR and how to use a defibrillator device, as well as what to do in case of a fire, tornado, or armed intruder. “We started like gangbusters,” says Patierno. After the workshop they placed trained observers in the sanctuary, the lobby, and the parking lot. But over time, she says, it became harder to recruit volunteers. Then Texas happened. “A few weeks after that we had another training. I looked in and there were fifteen people in the room. People were very interested. The lesson is that even for a congregation that very much took safety seriously years ago, sometimes it takes another tragedy to remind us how important this is.”
Payson is minister at the UU Church of Worcester, Massachusetts, where ushers and others have long carried small handheld radios on Sunday mornings so they can communicate quickly. They are stationed in the parking lot, the foyer, and the sanctuary. He says, “We’re in a time when, with the increase in weapons that can cause mass casualties, any organization with a public ministry needs to be mindful of the potential for harm.”
There are things that he encourages all congregations to do: Limit the number of entrances on Sunday morning. Be aware of any bulky items people bring. Make good eye contact with everyone, and speak to them so you can assess their demeanor. That’s also good hospitality, he notes. “Being welcoming can serve multiple purposes.”
Ushers should be trained to respond appropriately to people who appear to be disoriented or confused, which is a more common occurrence on Sunday morning than an armed terrorist. And if someone appears intent on causing a disturbance, have the courage to escort them out, he says. Further, develop a plan with adjacent building owners so that if you have to evacuate your building because of a threat, you can seek shelter in theirs. Finally, if you have to call police, it helps to do so from a landline so they can more quickly determine your location.
Payson notes that domestic violence is often a precursor to gun violence, as it was in the case with the Texas gunman. “Congregants need to be encouraged to speak up if there’s a danger that violence at home could follow them to church.”
Patierno doesn’t want to leave the impression that Sunday mornings are entirely anxious times. There is an upside, she says, to the increased awareness. “There is so much sadness and anxiety now for liberal people of faith. Worship here has had a depth of joy and relief and a kindling of hope. Folks are so grateful to gather and raise their voices and have energy and faith to face all that we must be facing. The quality of worship in the last year has had an extra layer of life-giving importance.”
Ushers at First UU Church of San Diego, California, recently underwent a security and safety retraining. “There is a general anxiety now about churches feeling a little less like sanctuaries; we’re paying attention to that,” says the Rev. Ian W. Riddell, minister of music and worship arts. “We’ve had no major incidents, but there is a heightened sense from the ushers of the importance of spotting things.” He says the congregation’s ushers worry more about whether someone might get sick or disruptive than about armed intruders, but notes that one of their challenges is that “the things we need to train for are not the things that are most likely to happen.”
At First Parish UU in Needham, Massachusetts, the congregation holds an annual evacuation drill, part of its Safe Congregations program. The surprise drill happens near the end of worship. If the emergency is a “fire,” the congregation quickly exits the sanctuary with the help of trained volunteers and regathers on the front lawn. In case of a “dangerous person,” people are supposed to scatter. After the drill, people come back together for coffee hour. “Sadly, in our society today, it is necessary to have an active-shooter plan,” says First Parish minister the Rev. Catie Scudera.
Another resource for congregations is Church Mutual Insurance Company, which insures nearly 700 UU congregations. “We had a huge uptick in calls about security after Sutherland Springs,” says Cheryl Kryshak, vice president of risk control. “The number of intrusion events may be very small globally, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”
Congregations without a security plan should start by making one, Kryshak says. “Start with examining who has keys to your buildings. Keep doors locked. Lay out usher responsibilities, as ushers are the first line of defense. Then you need to communicate your plan to the congregation and the staff. Then the last piece is training people so they know what to do.” Church Mutual has a number of resources on its website about security and emergency issues, including armed intrusion.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.