Local Churches Taking Measures to Boost Security Amid Deadly Attacks

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.

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.

 

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.

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