News of a fatal shooting Aug. 11 at West Ripley Church of Christ in Tippah County is a stark reminder of the need for security measures at churches throughout Monroe County to ensure the safety of worshipers. Many already have plans in place and have never had to act on an incident, but the recent church shooting is a sign of changing times.
“We live in a society where a lot of people are bringing their problems to church services. A lot of people are carrying guns, and we don’t know who has them,” said the Rev. Danny Gladney of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Egypt, which has a congregation of 300 people. “It’s a concern of mine, but I try to get to church early enough to talk to God that people have worship on their minds rather than things that are negative or derogatory.”
“I don’t let my guard down, but I have to depend on the Holy spirit to lead me. You’d think what has happened nationally would never happen in Mississippi, but it has.”
Churches have long been assumed to be safe places, yet they are becoming scenes of violence just like shopping malls and nightclubs.
In the instance of the Ripley shooting, the preacher’s son-in-law was shot and killed by a county constable. Both men were members of the church. According to media reports, witnesses stated the two men were involved in an argument, and the constable was attacked.
The Rev. Wesley White of Smithville Baptist Church pastors the town’s largest congregation and is confident the church is proactive on the challenge.
“We’ve been working on security and safety for about 10 years. We saw it early on,” White said.
Smithville Baptist Church’s congregation is protected by trained volunteers who rove the campus during services and have established operating procedures to respond quickly to problems.
Monroe County Baptist Association Associate Missions Director Mike Bell has hosted several workshops about church security for Southern Baptist pastors and church staffs throughout the county.
“These have been some of our best attended meetings. We’ve counted 150 or more attending,” Bell said.
He said affiliated congregations are well-served by resources from the Mississippi State Baptist Convention, including addressing the need for church security.
Pastor Wesley Pepper of First United Methodist Church in Amory has led an active but discreet task force to protect worshipers since coming to the church in 2017.
“We are proactively seeking to assure the safety of those gathered in this place to worship, attend our preschool or work here as a part of our church staff,” he said. “Amory FUMC is a safer place than it was two years ago.”
An integral part of security technology is the use of closed-circuit cameras that monitor hallways and entrances for any suspicious behavior, which has been installed at many churches, including Amory Church of Christ, according to minister Phillip Hathcock.
Gladney said technology aids in the measures put in place at his church as well.
In 2017, a man killed 26 people at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church in Texas and wounded 20 others.
“After the shooting took place in Texas, we put measures in place. Our back doors are always locked, and our media team can buzz people in and they’re looking at who they’re letting in. We have greeters who meet the public at the front door, and they’re normally paired with people they’re not familiar with,” Gladney said.
He said it’s a tough balance to welcome newcomers while keeping safety in mind.
“You’re concerned but you want to see new faces. You walk gently but want to get enough information to follow up with the person at a later date. If you get the right greeter, they’ll change their minds from anything negative. They’re trained to look for newcomers and make them feel at home and sit with them,” Gladney said.
Several years ago, before an increase of church shooting reports nationally, Aberdeen and parts of the county faced a rash of vehicle break-ins during Sunday morning services, prompting the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office to perform regular checks and for some churches to set up parking lot guards.
Even before then, First Baptist Church in Aberdeen had a case of a man who came regularly to Sunday services and walked out at different times. Weeks and an Aberdeen Police Department investigation later, it was discovered he set up his own living space on the third floor, which is used for storage. The incident prompted the security system installed shortly thereafter.
Additionally, the church also has a security team.
“I respectfully call it the good old boy system. We don’t have code words. As far as firearms and protection, we have several who have concealed carry permits,” said Bro. Dave Dowdy. “It’s simple security we have. 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.”