Resources Surrounding the Ellicott City Tragedy
In the wake of the May 3 shooting tragedy at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Md., the Diocese reached out to our members and churches for reflections and resources. Here, we've compiled those responses. Some are prayers, some are suggestions and some are hopes for the future.
Church Safety Recommendations
Church safety and security are high-growth industries in the wake of various shootings and other incidents, including the killings at the Unitarian-Universalist church in Tennessee, the shooting at the Kansas church and many more. But most police departments do crime security surveys for free.
Key recommendations typically are:
- Know who is in your building at all times.
- Limit the ability of persons to move around in your parish building. For instance, someone who enters the food pantry should not have open access to a school or office space.
- Train your ushers to respond appropriately in the case of suspicious behavior. In many cases, there are advance signs of trouble in the offing.
- Ensure that clergy and office staff have the ability to get help in a hurry. For example, you might arrange that if a priest calls the parish administrator and says, "Send my next appointment in," she or he needs the police right away.
- Maintain adequate lighting and physical security. An alarm system is great but cannot take the place of adequate locks and other physical security.
- Know how you will respond to various events and have a written plan. Events to consider include weather emergencies, health emergencies, disruptions to the physical plant (like burst water lines or lack of heat), protests, disruptions to services, active shooters and more.
- Do not hesitate to contact police if something doesn't feel right. It's often easier to prevent a problem than deal with it later.
- If you arrive at your church building and discover signs of an incident (broken glass, signs of violence, suicide notes, etc.,) do not enter or intervene. Leave immediately and get emergency help.
- Have a parish security committee.
Sooner or later, every parish has an emergency. The Maryland incident underscores that it can and does happen "here."
--Eric Bonetti, RPJ Housing, Church of the Covenant Presbyterian, Arlington
Being Aware of Your Surroundings
I talked to the staff at St. Andrew’s, Burke this week about how we would respond to the events at St. Peter’s. We do have a good number of walk-ins, a few of whom are regulars and some of whom are a little scary. Some of our plans include:
1. When only one or two people are separated by space in the building, we will lock all doors and have a sign indicating the number a person can call for admittance.
2. I have suggested that all staff have some small amount of money ($5 or so) in their desks so that if someone comes in who appears to be threatening, they can be given the money. This is usually enough to get them to move along.
3. The usual, “Be aware of your surroundings and surrounding activity.” Caution was reinforced.
We continue to talk about people’s concerns and proper responses.
--The Rev. Gary Goldacker, St. Andrew’s, Burke
We Cannot Live Our Lives in Fear
I wish there were resources or a protocol that I could recommend, but I am at a loss. This tragedy in Ellicott City, Md. is yet another painful reminder that, unfortunately, gun violence is part of the fabric of our American culture. We really are not safe anywhere. Our family is among those who know all too well. And here in Virginia, we have an attorney general who has decreed that it's OK to bring concealed weapons into churches. God forbid that there might be those in our diocese who jump to the conclusion that this will be a solution to protecting people in our churches. We can almost hear it now: "Give our staff members concealed weapons so our churches will be safe!" And it gets worse: the impotent Virginia General Assembly and governor, capitulating once again to the Gun Lobby, have abolished the "one-gun-per-month" law making accessibility to guns much easier through gun trafficking in Virginia so that more guns can be made available to criminals on a daily basis.
We cannot, however, live our lives in fear.
As I read the email I am struck with how it has affected me to see the shooter, Douglas', name included in the same breath in the prayers with Brenda and Mary-Marguerite, his victims. He does need our prayers as well, no question, yet putting them all together is for me right now a stretch, but that is my struggle.
--The Rev. David Knight, St. Mary’s, Goochland
I have no words of wisdom. Sadness. Grief. Gratitude. But I do write this to explore my response to the St. Peter’s tragedy. The news catapulted two images across my mind’s eye. One, a snapshot of last year as a teacher holding my walkie-talkie during a school lock-down with my students in the windowless corner of the room. They formed a huge pile of crouching arms and legs. Innocent, but not as free as 6th-graders should be. They giggled and tried not to whisper. Standing by the door, I was bummed out. Why lock-downs. Madness. Then, in the middle of that sadness, erupted the realization that at all costs, I was called to keep these kids safe. I shuddered, “Am I ready to be a human shield?” These were my girls; there’s no choice in the answer to that question. I can only pray, and pray hard, not to be put to that test.
I can’t imagine being Brenda Brewington or the Rev. Kohn. Or, for that matter, Douglas Jones. I can’t understand why I have not been put to such a test or why they were. That even makes me angry. It’s a struggle. The same struggle I feel when I see a picture of an Iraqi or Pakistani child crying for her mother.
The other image that burst onto my brain-pan when I heard the news was of sitting in my office in the parish hall last week on a cool spring early evening. All of the doors to the building open, I could hear the fountain outside. I was the only one there; then a vestry member came through and questioned the open doors, chastised me a little. I know it was naive; we’ve had some incidents in the neighborhood. But, how do we, without being cavalier, not live in fear? And, how do I put aside my anger that I live in a frequently angry society? I want to walk in the world and hear birds, and be willing to have to say, “Our food pantry is not open right now.” I’ve had to say that before, and I don’t want to be afraid. The paradoxes of all these feelings, so uncomfortable.
So, I reach for comfort in our hymns, and one of my favorite hymns with all of its paradoxes and “simple” truths lived in me these last few days.
“These three are the treasures to strive for and prize: be gentle, live simply and have the humility to shy from the struggle to put oneself first, these are the pearls...Through gentleness those who attack win the fight, and those who defend have their safety in gentleness; this gentleness rests in the children of God, this is their sign.
I am grateful to be in a diocese that cares to reach out and ask us for our thoughts; the reaching out, itself, made me stop to pray and think about this. I am grateful to continue to strive for gentleness (it certainly does not always rest in me), guided and mentored by so many children of God in the Diocese of Virginia.
--Martha Jones Burford, Holy Comforter, Richmond
Feelings of Fear & Vulnerability
This news is indeed tragic for the people and families involved at St. Peter's.
It is also normal and understandable for people to feel especially vulnerable when this kind of attack brings tragedy into the midst of those with whom we share some sense of identity. I believe, however, that the sense of fear and vulnerability will dissipate rather rapidly over time. It that were not true then we have had plenty of reasons to become fearful previous to this event. The Virginia Tech massacre was an event that touched many families much closer to home. Previous to moving to Richmond, there were people in the neighborhood where Susan and I lived that had put up a permanent memorial to a daughter that was killed in the Virginia Tech massacre.
The people of the United States have decided to allow those who favor gun ownership and minimal gun regulations to dominate the politics of our country. As a consequence, we must live with the reality that the United States ranks in the top 10 nations for gun violence and well above any other first world nation. Unless we as a church or as individuals are willing to confront a political hot spot we live with the reality that these kinds of attacks are a part of our reality.
But as Christians we must live with that fact while refusing to live with a sense of constant fear. In this case the shooter was a homeless person. But shooters have come from a wide variety of walks of life. We cannot stop ministering to homeless persons because of the actions of one homeless person in one church.
We must pray for those who died and offer whatever support is helpful for the families who have suffered loss, for the people of St. Peter's and for any loved ones who might be related to the shooter. And we must refuse to allow this event to cause us to make security the focus of our thoughts. There are still many people who need the doors of the church to be as open as is practical, and that of course is different in different areas. The most inspiring model for responding to a tragedy of this sort is the model of the Amish community in Lancaster, Penn. who not only ministered to the families of the victims but also to the family of the shooter.
--The Rev. Tom Holliday
Saddened & Distressed
As someone who works extensively with the homeless population I was deeply saddened and distressed for St. Peter's, Md. I find when our vulnerability bears itself in all of our nakedness Jesus is in our midst to lead us ever so gently to persevere. I always bear in mind in ministering to this population their deep scarred psychological wounds are not intended for harm but for self-defense.
--Martha W. Knight
From the Committee on Mental Health
The Mental Health Committee of the Diocese of Virginia offers several resources: 1) We have prepared a toolkit to help any clergy or vestry member find local mental health personnel to which to refer persons with mental health issues. We recommended that every church office have a file with the names and contact points of every professional in the area, and our guides help them to find those persons. We also recommended that every clergy person and vestry become acquainted with such personnel as well as local police and hospital personnel to assist in cases of emergency.
We do not ask that clergy offer therapy or long-term counseling, but we do think that every clergy should have some sense of interpersonal mental health problems and have some training in direct action and direct options for psychological emergencies. We found, after a review of the offerings at VTS, that this type of training is sparse for priests trained there. We suggested that there be a unit in the training of all clergy, either through a mandatory training or through the mandatory training of Fresh Start.
In all our conferences on mental health issues in churches, there has been almost no clergy in attendance. That is why we think the Diocese of Virginia is vulnerable to this type of mental health crisis in the future. We are also working to try to coordinate with the emergency preparedness committee of the Diocese to work on church response to tragedies like this, whether they occur in a church, a university, a post office or some other public place. Healing for the whole community is a responsibility of the Church.
--Paul Ackerman, PhD. Co-Chair, Committee on Mental Health
To respond to the request for suggestions for safety procedures in small churches for staff, in psychotherapy/counseling settings, it is always recommended to think first about personal safety: that is, to have access to communication means such as telephone, to have a panic button or other device for easy and quick calling for immediate help, to sit closest to the door with no barriers to getting away from the client/consumer first, to have others in the building who can warn or assist, and, I am sure, to never be alone in a setting. Also, to be able to assess the person for dangerous situation, to refuse to see anyone with a weapon or other means of harm. There may be other ideas, but obviously there should be some training of all diocesan staff.
And additionally to maybe work more closely with local community officials regarding church schedules, etc. For example, I noticed that in our last night-time service at our very small St. Luke's, Simeon Church (Good Friday), as we were cleaning up the altar and closing up the church, a police car was positioned across the street with its lights out, hardly visible, but, I am sure, watchful for the last folks to leave. I thought this was a bit unnecessary since there were several of us leaving together, but now a good idea since it was late, and dark.
--Marta Engdahl, Co-Chair, Committee on Mental Health
We Can’t Lock Up Doors
When I arrived in the office Monday morning our office volunteer was talking about our need for security cameras, a way to “buzz” people in, and other things we have to do to make the church more secure.
There were similar conversations after 9/11 and during the sniper attacks.
We can and should pray for the people killed and deeply affected by this bizarre tragedy. But we can’t lock up our doors. We would still have to go and open them when someone knocks. We can’t keep people out of the place where they are coming for life. And we can’t guard life against bizarre incidents. Life is a bizarre incident. Day in, day out we are more likely to be hit in the parking lot by an out of control car. In fact, one Sunday morning four years ago I arrived to find a car that had missed the curve approaching the church and after running over a small tree had somehow flipped and was left upside down on the edge of our drive way. No one was around. The driver had apparently walked away. Someone might have been killed, but I can’t imagine how we could ever guard against it!
I have no idea how many small churches there are in Fairfax County. I can count nearly a dozen within a mile or so of St Luke’s. Within the 50-mile radius to Ellicott City there have to be thousands. My guess is that most of them have no kind of security system whatsoever. And yet this never happens. My guess is that once a year somewhere in the world this happens.
So St. Luke’s will Stay Calm and Carry On. Doors open, transients welcome, along with preschoolers, pastoral counseling clients, AA, the Nurturing Parents Program of Fairfax County, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, prayer groups from the local Mosque, a multi-cultural non-denominational congregation, an interfaith Bible study group, our parishioners, and most (dangerous?) of all – God. To whom we pray for the souls of all who die knowing that they are not dead to the One who Is, and that our Lord is always doing for us better things than we can ask or imagine. And we can pray for more pervasive and improved care of the mentally ill, so that churches aren’t the only institutions where they can find help. And we can pray for a change of heart about the prevalence and use of guns in our communities. And we can give proud thanks that the Episcopal Church is known for having clergy and staff who care for the poor, and sometimes pay the ultimate price, but who keep serving. May God answer all our prayers as may be best for us.
--The Rev. Tuck Bowerfind, St. Luke’s, Wellington
We Come From Love
- Read the sermon of the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek, delivered at St. Peter's, Ellicott City on May 6.
- Learn more from the Diocese of Maryland.
- Learn more from St. Peter's Church.
Violence at Churches is Rare, but Ministers Remain Vigilant
Join the Bible Challenge
VTS Celebrates Commencement