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Locked doors during church? Religious leaders struggle with safety measure, message it sends

By Laura Hayes

Posted 3/7/18

Local churches have started locking either some or all of their doors during worship services in response to safety concerns from recent mass shootings.

The Press & Journal talked to religious …

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Locked doors during church? Religious leaders struggle with safety measure, message it sends

Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, 280 N. Race St., Middletown
Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, 280 N. Race St., Middletown
staff photo by jason maddux

Local churches have started locking either some or all of their doors during worship services in response to safety concerns from recent mass shootings.

The Press & Journal talked to religious leaders at eight churches and asked about their security protocol. Four said they locked either some or all of the doors during worship, three said their doors remained unlocked during services and one said the congregation has discussed security measures, but not yet made a decision.

Parishes such as Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary and New Beginnings Church were among those who lock their doors.

“A lot of people in the parish are worried about it. They’re wondering who’s walking in the vestibule or when Mass is going on, they’re looking back to see who’s hanging out back there. People have expressed that concern to me personally,” said Father Ted Keating, pastor at Seven Sorrows.

Others such as Geyer’s United Methodist Church do not lock their doors. Pastor Stevan Atanasoff said he understood locking school doors, but did not think the answer was to lock church doors.

“What kind of society is that to inherit and pass onto our children and grandchildren?” Atanasoff said.

Keating said people also expressed concerns to the diocese. Diocese of Harrisburg director of communications Joseph Aponick said while their schools are required to have emergency management plans — including response to active shooter scenarios — their churches aren’t required to have a specific active shooter plan in place.

“But they are encouraged to develop emergency management plans and to focus on church security awareness, especially after the shooting at the church in Texas last fall and the recent school shooting in Florida,” Aponick said.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 39 mass shootings across the United States so far this year.

Aponick referred to the recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February after Nikolas Cruz allegedly opened fire, killing 17 people and injuring 14 more, and at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where Devin Kelley killed 26 people on a Sunday morning last November.

St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Pastor Richard Eckert is the president of the Middletown Area Interfaith Council — an organization comprised of about 20 local churches and Historic B’nai Jacob Synagogue.

Church security has come up during the monthly meetings in January and February, according to Eckert. He said many of the churches were gathering information, including reaching out to law enforcement officers about possible seminars.

During meetings, some religious leaders have brought up locking doors or how to protect children in nurseries. Some leaders suggested having parishioners be aware during services, while others proposed installing cameras in the churches.

“No one has them, that I’m aware of,” Eckert said.

A decision hasn’t been made as a whole council, Eckert said, adding that a decision may be made this spring.

However, some churches have individually taken action. At St. Peter’s, the church council decided in December to have two or three people patrol the halls and entrances during worship after a man who did not regularly attend the church came in during a service with a backpack. Parishioners were friendly, but alert, Eckert said.

“A sense of alertness has been here and with us, not just since Florida, but that brought it to the center again,” Eckert said.

Eckert said the gospel called the church to be open and welcome to all. “The faith as we understand it and tried to live it is that all are welcome. So that means everybody. If they mean malice or if they’re here to do bad things, well, they’re welcomed. And we have to find a way to protect those entrusted to our care,” he said.

However, he said that talking to the Press & Journal about church security during worship and other church activities, made him consider taking other security precautions, particularly if children are playing in the parking lot.

“When I sit and talk to you about it, it’s almost like we’re creating a dangerous reality,” Eckert said.

Response to recent shootings varied church to church. Some parishioners have expressed concerns to the religious leaders while others haven’t. Some pastors saw locking doors as a realistic response. Some leaders struggled with locking the doors to potential parishioners.

“Think about the message it’s sending,” Atanasoff said.

Atanasoff said the congregation hasn’t discussed locking the doors, and the doors remain unlocked during services. Geyer’s, St. Peters Evangelical Lutheran Church and Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church were among those reached out to by the Press & Journal that said they did not lock their doors.

“I have had more people say they wish we didn’t have to lock the doors at all,” Atanasoff said.

The diocese’s insurer, Catholic Mutual, recently sent Catholic churches, including Seven Sorrows, information on what to do in active shooter scenarios and what churches could do to increase security.

Suggestions included locking doors, easily identifying ushers and equipping them with loud horns and cellphones in case of emergencies, having people patrol outside the church or have a surveillance vehicle near the church entrance, making sure ushers and staff had cellphones and clearly marking exits.

Seven Sorrows decided to lock all of its doors during services. At the start of worship at Seven Sorrows, the doors will be locked and ushers will stand by the door to let in anyone who is late.

“I think we need to be cautious, but I don’t think we need to go to extremes,” Keating said.

Keating said while he wasn’t sure how effective locking doors was during an active shooting, he said it would delay the shooter.

“Any time you can cause a delay or inconvenience, I think that’s to the benefit to everyone in the congregation,” Keating said.

What about visitors to the church?

“That’s what worries me about doing stuff like this. That’s a concern of mine. It can turn people off if the doors are locked. I personally would like to keep the doors open all the time … I think a church needs to be a place of welcome, and a locked church — I think a lot of people aren’t going to church today as it is — and a locked church doesn’t help. That’s a concern of mine — of new people coming in and not hearing my announcement that the church is locked,” Keating said.

New Beginnings Church has locked some of its doors for several years, according to Pastor Britt Strohecker who is an Army veteran.

It recently made the decision to lock all of the doors.

He said the congregation felt vulnerable leaving one door unlocked because visibility out of the sanctuary to the unlocked door wasn’t good.

“People really need to take this problem seriously,” Strohecker said.

The threat is there and it exists, he said, adding that there was not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the issue.

“You can run, you can hide or you can fight,” Strohecker said.

In the case of an active shooter scenario, he said churches needed to consider all possibilities and how to respond to them, including consideration of the church’s layout and making sure all of the parishioners are aware of the plan — everything it takes to make the “run” or “hide” options viable and to avoid a gunfight.

“If only three to four people know what the plan is, then you don’t have an effective plan. If the worst happens, then you’re going to face disaster,” Strohecker said.

At New Beginnings, Strohecker said they have constant surveillance of the doors. Additionally, several people — including law enforcement officers in the congregation — have concealed carry permits.

“I do know that if worst comes to worst we have a number of people who are armed in our congregation,” he said.

New Beginnings and Seven Sorrows are not the only area church that locks its doors during worship.

At the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown, interim pastor Bruce Humphrey said the side and back doors are locked during services, leaving the only entrance through the main doors.

Evangelical United Methodist Church also locks all but its main doors during worship.

“It’s a sad thing to have to talk about something like this, but it’s important to be prudent and prepared,” Pastor Lee Ellenberger said.

Pastor Brad Gilbert of the Ebenezer United Methodist Church said the congregation has discussed church security, but hasn’t made a decision.

Other churches do not have plans to lock its doors. The Rev. David Smiley of the Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church said its session of ruling elders have discussed security and decided to keep its doors unlocked during worship.

“Martyrdom has been part of the history of the church,” Smiley said.

Ushers are near the entrance of the church to greet people, and Smiley is able to see where the ushers sit.

It’s not uncommon for people to come into the church after the service has started, he said. Some people have come in over halfway through.

The consensus of the elders was to err on the side of having people be able to hear the worship service.

Keating said he didn’t know whether Seven Sorrows would continue to lock its doors.

“I’m not anticipating that for the duration of our time here, we’re going to be locking the doors,” Keating said.

Churches, Strohecker said, need to come up with emergency response plans immediately.

“This is not something to delay on,” he said. “You need to get away from thinking that it can’t come here.”