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Churches beef up security

When a black-clad gunman walked into New Life Church on Sunday and started shooting, he was met with the church's first line of defense: a congregant with a concealed-weapons permit and a law enforcement background.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When a black-clad gunman walked into New Life Church on Sunday and started shooting, he was met with the church's first line of defense: a congregant with a concealed-weapons permit and a law enforcement background.

The armed volunteer, Jeanne Assam, shot the gunman, who police said may have committed suicide. New Life's pastor credited her with saving dozens more lives.

Churches want to present an open and welcoming image, but in an era of mass-casualty shootings and terrorism threats, the violence at New Life highlights a new emphasis on security. Some of the nation's estimated 1,200 megachurches — places where more than 2,000 worshippers gather each week — have been quietly beefing up security in recent years, even using armed guards to protect the faithful.

Meanwhile, many more, often smaller congregations typically don't have detailed security plans because they don't have the money or don't want to risk turning people away.

At Potter's House, a Dallas megachurch led by star pastor T.D. Jakes, a private security company employs a team of armed, unarmed, uniformed and plainclothes guards that keep watch over crowds in the thousands. Under a new Texas law, all nonprofits must use licensed security guards, and the church hired Classic Security in response, said Sean Smith, who formerly led the church's security detail and now works for the company.

For the past three years, Potter's House has hosted a church security conference, drawing more than 400 people this year to sessions on surveillance, background checks and other issues. Although precautions can be costly, money spent on security can end up being far less than liability and lawsuit risks if no action is taken, the church says.

‘Somehow, at churches we feel immune’
"You see (security) anywhere but churches," Smith said. "You see it in malls, at banks, at concerts. Somehow, at churches we feel immune to violence. But it's been proven not to be the case."

Even without a security department, churches can train volunteers to keep watch for suspicious behavior, such as a visitor dressed in a long coat in summer or not making eye contact with anyone, Smith said.

The security plan at New Life Church may seem extraordinary. The church's volunteer security force is stocked with people with military or law enforcement experience, they carry radios and weapons, and there are evacuation plan calls for hustling worshippers into "secure zones" in the case of emergencies.

But charismatic New Life, Colorado's largest church with about 10,000 members, is no ordinary church.

Even before the founding pastor, the now-disgraced Ted Haggard, became a player on the national political stage, the church endured death threats against him. There were bomb scares and vandalism, including animal blood being splashed on the walls, said Patton Dodd of Colorado Springs, a former New Life Church staff member and editor with the Web site Beliefnet.

"Even back then we had people undercover in the congregation who were armed," Dodd said. "It was a big church at the time, it was Christian, and some people really hate that stuff.

"Not only do we have military and ex-military all over, we have this sort of frontier mentality. People around here are serious about protecting their own."

Haggard was fired last year after a male prostitute alleged a relationship with him.

His successor, Brady Boyd, said Monday that his security chief recommended heightened security early Sunday after a shooting in a Denver suburb at a missionary training center dormitory. Boyd agreed.

Assam, the security guard, had attended the church's early worship service at 9 a.m., then stood watch in the rotunda of as the second service was letting out.

There, she confronted the gunman, identified as 24-year-old Matthew Murray. Murray managed to two kill two sisters and wound their father and two others before he was killed. At a news conference Monday, Assam said that she prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide her, and that her hands never shook.

‘Me, the gunman and God’
"It seemed like it was me, the gunman and God," Assam said.

Speaking of the church's security plan, Boyd said: "That's the reality of our world." He stressed that all armed guards are licensed and screened.

On Sept. 15, 1999, a deranged man burst into a Wednesday night teen prayer rally at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, killing four teenagers and three adults.

The pastor, the Rev. Al Meredith, didn't heed calls afterward to post armed guards at the church.

"There just isn't enough money in the kingdom to hire off-duty police officers to stand guard at every door of every church," he said. He added that he didn't want to turn people away: "I want the church to be a welcome place for sinners."

American Jews have long stressed the need to safeguard their community organizations, schools and synagogues. Many groups formed security committees.

"There have been security concerns generally for many years, but they have certainly been heightened since 9/11," said Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Orthodox Union, which represents Orthodox synagogues in North America.

Homeland Security grants
The Homeland Security Department created a grant program of nearly $50 million to improve security for religious and secular nonprofits considered at risk of terrorist attack.

Several groups have received individual grants, according to Homeland Security officials.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations also distributes a detailed security checklist, urging groups to build relations with local law enforcement and elected officials, report suspicious activity and hold community meetings to raise awareness of potential threats.

The Fellowship of the Woodlands megachurch in Texas employs a former FBI agent as a full-time security director, overseeing volunteers and paid staff, said pastor Kerry Shook. Those who are armed in the congregation are police officers, he said.

"It's something you just have to do today," said Shook, whose congregation draws 15,600 people per weekend. "We want everyone to feel safe. At the same time, we want to be open and accepting of everyone. An incident like this one in Colorado Springs just reinforces what the church is — we have to be a light in a dark world."