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'We can't close our doors': Local churches unlikely to boost security in response to Texas shooting

FARGO - While religious leaders in the Fargo-Moorhead area expressed shock at the mass shooting at a Baptist church in Texas, they said they did not expect the deadly event to change in any substantive way how they operate.A lone gunman killed 26...

Mike Lehmann, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fargo, said the church is unlikely to increase its security in response to Sunday’s attack on a Texas church, because "Our design is to be open to people." Blake Gumprecht / The Forum
Mike Lehmann, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fargo, said the church is unlikely to increase its security in response to Sunday’s attack on a Texas church, because "Our design is to be open to people." Blake Gumprecht / The Forum

FARGO - While religious leaders in the Fargo-Moorhead area expressed shock at the mass shooting at a Baptist church in Texas, they said they did not expect the deadly event to change in any substantive way how they operate.

A lone gunman killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5. Police in Texas have said the attack appears to have been motivated by a domestic conflict, not religion or race.

Mike Lehmann, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Fargo, said the attack "hit home" because his church is the same denomination and has the same name as the one attacked, and is similarly small in size. First Baptist in Fargo typically attracts about 40 worshippers on Sunday mornings.

"It's such a horrible, horrible thing that happened," he said. "To think of the size of the church, the comparisons - it's devastating to think about."

Like most churches, First Baptist in Fargo has become more security conscious over the years. Few churches are open 24 hours a day, like they once were. Some have installed security cameras. First Baptist recently installed a sensor on its door that sounds when someone enters the building at times when there are few people present. But those changes have more to do with concerns about theft and vandalism than fear of attack.

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Lehmann said he doesn't anticipate the church significantly increasing security because of the mass shooting in Texas.

"We're a church," he said. "Our design is to be open to people who are looking for the love of Christ. We can't close our doors on Sunday morning. We can't have armed guards or have a metal detector. The best thing we can do is to be welcoming."

Other church leaders said they doubted that any security precautions could have prevented an attack similar to the one in Texas.

The Texas gunman had a military-style rifle, at least two other guns, and multiple rounds of ammunition. He wore tactical gear and a ballistic vest. Even if a church had security guards and metal detectors, they would likely have been no match for such an attacker.

"Even if there was security in place, it might not have helped," said Kris Mutzenberger, pastor at First United Methodist Church.

One local minister who has thought about security issues more than most is Daniel Sampson Sr., pastor of New Birth Baptist Church, a predominantly black church, whose members are both native-born blacks and immigrants.

Sampson is studying toward a degree in emergency management at North Dakota State University. In one of his classes, they conducted a mock disaster exercise in which the Fargo marathon is subject to a bomb threat and an attack by a gunman. Sampson also used to be a security guard, working for a Department of Defense contractor in Maryland.

He has undergone active shooter training and plans to discuss with church members whether New Birth Baptist should begin conducting active shooter drills.

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"If someone is determined that they are going to take people's lives, there's very little you can do to stop it," he said. "But we want to do whatever we can to lessen the impact."

Following the 2015 attack on a black church in Charleston, S.C., in which an avowed white supremacist shot and killed nine people, New Birth Baptist made subtle changes to reduce the risks if it ever faced a similar attack. The church holds services at First Baptist Church, and it now positions a podium at the entrance to the sanctuary "as a buffer," and stations a church deacon at the podium to watch who is entering.

One local church that takes a different posture is Bethel Church in south Fargo, which reported two years ago that it had developed security procedures, and even a lockdown plan, after the church received threats. It stations at least two people with guns in the congregation every Sunday, and they are part of a larger team of church members who carry concealed weapons.

Bethel minister Gary Siefers declined to be interviewed on Monday, Nov. 6, but said in a statement, "In the last few years it has become increasingly important for Bethel Church to be proactive and provide an efficient, low-profile security and safety plan that attempts to protect and serve the people who attend our church."

The Islamic Center of Fargo-Moorhead has also significantly increased security at its Fargo mosque because of growing hostility toward Muslims nationwide and attacks on mosques elsewhere. A spokesman for the center said it often hires off-duty Fargo police officers to guard the mosque during Friday prayers and special events. At least two members also guard the mosque, one inside and one outside. They are armed.

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