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.
“I don’t think that any church can now disregard that,” said Jeff Robins, the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Tupelo. “They need to think of what can be done to ensure safety at the place of worship.”
Robins said he was driving in the area when a fatal shooting involving Tippah County Constable Keith Bullock and church member Patrick Sanders occurred on Sunday, Aug. 11, at the West Ripley Church of Christ. According to reports from the Southern Sentinel, Sanders was pronounced dead at the scene and Bullock was treated for minor injuries. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation continues to investigate the case.
Robins has had a safety team in place since he first started Cornerstone Church in Tupelo. Robins said having a safety team is something he carried over from being in charge of one at a larger church in Memphis, yet he said security is becoming an issue that even smaller churches may need to keep in mind. Robins saw the crowd of people outside when the incident occurred, and he said he reinforced security talks with his own team.
“The Ripley incident shows that even if you’re small, you have to be thinking about that,” Robins said.
He refers to his team as a safety team rather than a security team due to having members who handle both medical and safety emergencies. For security reasons, Robins did not delve into specifics about the makeup of the team, but he said it is a volunteer effort and non-medical members must have military or law enforcement background and training.
World of Life Church in Tupelo 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.
Itawamba County’s Mount Pleasant Baptist Church created an official church security team after the passage of the Mississippi Church Protection Act of 2016 (HB 786), which allows churches to create security programs. They have 25 members who rotate coverage of the approximately 250 to 300 Sunday attendees and 150 Wednesday night services, and team members include current and former law enforcement, former military and select private citizens.
“We just don’t live in the same world we did 25 years ago, and we have to prepare for that,” said team member Ricky Summerford.
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.
John Ward and Ray Van Dusen of the Monroe Journal, Tina Campbell Meadows of the Southern Sentinel, Adam Armour and Teresa Blake of the Itawamba County Times, Galen Holley of the Pontotoc Progress and Josh Mitchell of the New Albany Gazette contributed to this report.