Local churches taking measures to boost security amid deadly attacks [photos]

Deacon Walt Goldston greets church members as he opens the door to the main entrance of the church along McCallie Ave. First Presbyterian's deacons serve as greeters and are considered part of the security team. In the wake of shootings at places of worship churches such as First Presbyterian has have deployed security personal to protect their members. First Presbyterian's security details were photographed on October 8, 2017.

Recent attacks across the country have local faith leaders taking a hard look at security measures at their places of worship here in Chattanooga.

For some, the issue came into focus after the Sept. 24 church shooting in Antioch, Tenn., near Nashville that left one woman dead and seven people wounded. The shooter, identified as 25-year-old Emanuel Kidega Samson, targeted the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ at the end of its Sunday morning service.

Investigators found a note in Samson's car that mentioned revenge for the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in which white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people during a Wednesday night Bible study.

The Antioch shooting, like mass shootings before it, prompted members of the faith community in Chattanooga to question their leaders, who increasingly find themselves considering security options.

"People individually say to me, 'What are you doing about that?'" said Don Holwerda, church administrator for First Presbyterian Church in downtown Chattanooga. "We just simply say to them, 'We are aware of what happened; we are prepared for that instance and you're safe.'"

With a congregation of 600-800 people meeting for services downtown, security is of paramount importance to First Presbyterian's leaders, who have added security elements - seen and unseen - over the years and regularly review their procedures.

"I think churches need to look at it. I think we are in a time when security is a big issue. Let's minimize the damage as opposed to hoping for the best," Holwerda said.

Among several measures taken at the church, one of the most obvious is the Chattanooga police officer standing in front of the McCallie Avenue building during services. Hired in the wake of the 2015 Chattanooga terrorist attack against local military facilities, the armed officer replaced an unarmed security guard.

"We think we were fine without it, but to see a uniformed Chattanooga police [officer] there with his gun on his hip is a deterrent," Holwerda said. "Instead of having green lights on the top of a security truck, we now have blue lights on top of a police car."

Additionally, administrators at First Presbyterian have brought on private security, installed cameras and implemented an identification system for members' cars to track who is in attendance.

Holwerda said they have taken other precautions that even some churchgoers are unaware of, and have developed action plans for several emergency scenarios.

"The hard thing for churches to do is certain drills," he said. "We've never really pulled the fire alarm while we're sitting here for the service. Whether we'd get them back for the sermon is kind of a question."

Ensuring church members' safety also means it's important to proactively identify suspicious or unfamiliar individuals. But he said that must be balanced against the overall mission of the church.

"You have to have that warm, welcome feeling for a visitor or a stranger, but on the other hand, they need to be identified. You want them to come to church, but you also want to protect your church members," he said.

Other churches in the area also are grappling with the issue.

Gene Johnson, director of mercy and communications at New City Fellowship in Glenwood, said his church has been working through it.

"It's really hard for us, as far as from a worship service standpoint, because we don't want to exclude anyone," he said. " But you also have to be aware. You don't want to say, 'You're not welcome here.'"

He said New City Fellowship works extensively with people who need support, and some of them have "rough backgrounds." Much of that work falls to him and deacons or deaconesses - church officers responsible for various aspects of the ministry.

Johnson said New City Fellowship has installed cameras and hired a police officer to monitor the church grounds during services, but added that the church has addressed security concerns since its founding.

"We're a little bit of a different story because we've been dealing with a lot of these issues for years," he said. "There's some street smarts involved in all this, too. For instance, when you have panhandlers in the parking lot, generally speaking, they are there because people are giving them money. We tell our people to avoid giving them money and refer them to a deacon."

Aside from personal grievances, such as the Charleston and Antioch attackers had, Johnson said there are other, more practical reasons someone might target a church. He pointed out that churches typically collect donations from their congregations.

"When you pass an offering plate with cash in it, people notice that," he said. "Theologically, or biblically, we always have to remember that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Knowing that, there should be a level of distrust."

Carl Chinn, a Colorado-based consultant who has compiled a database of violence in houses of worship, told The Associated Press after the Antioch shooting he had counted at least 447 deadly attacks nationwide over the last 18 years, killing 565 people.

Total known non-accidental deaths by year at places of worship

1999: 222000: 92001: 42002: 112003: 122004: 32005: 192006: 302007: 392008: 502009: 542010: 512011: 512012: 762013: 452014: 742015: 772016: 652017 (to date): 67Data provided by Carl Chinn’s database of deadly force incidents at faith-based organizations

Chinn said terrorist attacks make up only a sliver of that violence - 6 percent of the total. Most are the result of robberies, personal disputes or domestic violence.

That last cause can be tough to prevent, Chinn told the AP.

"You know where she parked, what service she attended, what time she gets there, what time she leaves," Chinn said.

Chinn said religious leaders too often believe God will protect their members, but he compares that to Bible verses that say God will provide for believers.

"I have never met anyone who sits up in bed, raises their hands and clothes fall down upon them," he said. "Church security is absolutely the same way. We believe in God's promise of protection, but that doesn't mean we turn a blind eye."

Similarly to New City Fellowship and First Presbyterian, the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga has strengthened security. Its president, Bassam Issa, said the Islamic Society installed cameras and has officers present for services, among other steps.

A team reviews security there on a regular basis, he said, but it's important to make appropriate plans before the worst-case scenario happens.

"You cannot just respond to every event that happens in the country and just be reactive. You have to be proactive and be alert," he said.

"Nobody should just relax when it comes to security," he added. "You can't discount any threat to any facility, whether it's a church or an office or a home or anything like that. Everybody in today's world has to do their duty to do all they can within their means to make themselves safe."

Issa said there has always been a societal concern for safety in places of worship, and people can't allow the threat of danger to dominate their lives.

"If you're in a place of worship and you have faith, you're going to go with confidence that God is going to protect you, so therefore, even though we are vigilant, we are not going to be on edge at all times worrying about safety and being paranoid," he said.

"You do everything you can as you should in measures, and then leave the rest to God."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.