Church has a long tradition of being seen as a sacred place, but with the increase of active shooter incidents and a recent shooting at a Tippah County church, many area churches are deciding that having security in place may be a necessity rather than an option.
“Hopefully we will never have a situation like that, but if it does, we can contain it quickly,” said Ricky Summerford, a member of the security team at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, located in rural Itawamba County, approximately six mile northeast of Fulton.
The church is one of many throughout Northeast Mississippi that has reevaluated its safety measures in the wake of mass shootings across the country, including churches.
The congregation at Mount Pleasant began the process of incorporating an official church security team into their regular weekly services following the passing of the Mississippi Church Protection Act of 2016. Summerford told The Times the idea behind the team is to be a deterrent to anyone who might consider striking the church, which sees attendance of about 275 people on Sunday morning. They have an Emergency Action Plan developed that includes how to respond in the event of an incident, evacuation floor plan routes, and designated assembly areas for safety and accountability.
The church also has a team of around 25 people who act as a rotating security force. During service, two armed security team members rove the campus. Other duties include exterior door security and, in the event of an incident, evacuation assistance and active shooter response.
All team members follow the regulations set up by the state law, which include obtaining and maintaining conceal carry permits. All team members have to be approved by the church via vote.
“We are selective and careful in our process,” Summerford said.
The team is made up of current and former law enforcement, former military and private responsible citizens.
A broader picture
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church is one of a growing number of churches across the region that have increased security and armed members of their congregation in hopes of warding off a potential mass shooter.
In Tupelo, World of Life Church also has security at every service, according to church administrator Jan Columbus. Columbus said the church started having security and cameras in place a few years ago, and while it wasn’t in response to any one event, it was a response to the changing nature of the world and the threat of being shot anywhere.
“You can get shot at Walmart, you can get shot at the movies, at church,” Columbus said. “It is not uncommon anymore for those things to happen, so we just thought it would be a good measure to make the church secure for our congregation.”
Columbus said they don’t try to draw attention to the security measures in order not to alarm anyone, but they have a few people stationed on guard every service. Increasing security has helped make everyone feel more secure if something were to occur, Columbus said.
In New Albany, Hillcrest Baptist Church also has a security team and plan in place. Jason Blackburn, minister of children and media, said the church wants to be as “secure as possible” so people “know that it is a safe place,” and added that it is unfortunate that security is needed at church, but “evil is evil.”
Being part of a security team gives people a unique way to help the church and can be a ministry for them, and Blackburn said people with a law enforcement or military background can also benefit church security teams.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to be able to serve,” said Blackburn.
Pontotoc County churches have long seen benefits in having security teams in place, and many of the churches have security teams written in their church bylaws and decided by church members by voting and discussion.
“We take very seriously the responsibility to guard what God has entrusted to us,” said Jim Ray, missions director for the Pontotoc County Baptist Association. “Our mission, our first priority – always – is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is peace, love, and forgiveness, but if we allowed just anyone to run over us, we’d be wiped out,” he said.
Carey Springs Baptist Church in Randolph and Pontotoc First Baptist Church have armed patrolmen in place.
West Heights Baptist Church also makes use of an armed team and cameras, and Valley Grove Baptist Church made sure its minister and deacon are trained in preparation for an active shooter threat.
Several churches in Monroe County are also taking measures to think about the security of their churches.
First United Methodist Church formed a task force in 2017, and the Amory Church of Christ uses cameras to boost security.
Gun-related violence is not the only reason some churches have increased security. In Aberdeen, a series of vehicle break-ins during church services caused several churches to add security and Monroe County law enforcement to perform checks.
First Baptist Church in Aberdeen has had a security team and system for years, according to Brother Dave Dowdy.
“I know the people who carry, and we have people walk the perimeter. We’ve not had a break-in since 2013 when I came, but that’s constantly on my mind. I see when people come in and I know who to call on,” Dowdy said.
Smithville Baptist Church has a team of trained volunteers and has had a response plan in place for about 10 years, said the Rev. Wesley White. With a congregation of 300, Reverend Danny Gladney of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church said he keeps alert and lets God guide him.
“You’d think what has happened nationally would never happen in Mississippi, but it has,” Gladney said.
And because of that, congregations like that of Itawamba County’s Mount Pleasant Baptist Church feel they must adapt.
“We just don’t live in the same world we did 25 years ago,” Summerford said. “We have to prepare for that.”
John Ward and Ray Van Dusen of the Monroe Journal, Tina Campbell Meadows of the Southern Sentinel, Galen Holley of the Pontotoc Progress and Josh Mitchell of the New Albany Gazette contributed to this report.