Just four days after the tragic killings of 26 people at a Texas church, the Rev. David Collins, an Albany pastor, gathered leaders in his congregation to discuss forming a security team for their small Baptist church.
"I can't imagine something happening to small town Albany, but you never know," said Collins, pastor of Blood River Baptist Church in eastern Livingston Parish. "We're definitely praying nothing like that will ever happen, but I imagine the people in Texas thought the same thing."
The team is made up of deacons and members who are former and current emergency responders like police officers and firefighters. Collins said their new security protocols began Nov. 12, when they discreetly checked the parking lot, bathrooms and lone open doorway — down from the three doors they used to always leave open. Collins said they also plan to install security cameras to monitor the property and are considering addressing the whole congregation about emergency procedures.
And, he said, the church will pay the fees for the security team to complete tactical training classes newly offered by the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office, an eight-hour course required by state law for someone to carry a concealed firearm in a place of worship.
"I remember growing up in churches and we never had to think of this, but we live in a fallen world," Collins said. "We need to keep our focus on Jesus Christ ... but at the same token, we have to protect each other too."
Faith leaders and their congregations across the Baton Rouge area have found themselves discussing safety and security as they try to grapple with the reality of the massacre by a man armed with a military-style rifle on Nov. 5 at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In that incident, an armed neighbor — and former National Rifle Association instructor — grabbed his own rifle and exchanged fire with the gunman outside the church. That neighbor and another man later gave chase as gunman Devin Patrick Kelley drove away. Kelley later died of a self-inflicted gunshot, authorities concluded.
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (AP) — A former National Rifle Association instructor who grabbed his rifle and ran barefoot across the street to op…
Some local churches, like Blood River Baptist Church, are choosing to take advantage of legislation passed in 2010 that allows church, synagogue and mosque leaders to approve members already equipped with concealed carry permits to also pack heat in their houses of worship — providing the members undergo an additional eight hours of tactical training annually. But other faith leaders have decided it's more important to maintain gun-free zones in their sanctuaries and address safety in different ways.
The Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office advertised on Facebook two days after the Texas church shooting that it would offer the required tactical training to certify concealed carriers to do so at their places of worship, the course Collins' selected security team has decided to take. Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard said the courses were not a reaction to the recent shooting in Texas, but he said that incident definitely drew more response about the new program.
"Those things get people thinking, and they want to make sure they have the training they need," Ard said. "We are getting a lot of interest."
In less than two weeks since opening sign-ups for the courses, almost all of the 75 available spots have been filled, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lori Steele. She said the office will look to offer more dates for the training if residents continue to sign up. The course costs $125 per participant.
Ard said he spoke with some faith leaders in Livingston more than a year ago about their interest in having some designated parishioners armed at their services. He worked with some of his deputies who already were certified as state concealed handgun permit instructors to develop the curriculum for the church, synagogue or mosque training. It is prohibited by Louisiana law to bring a concealed gun into a house of worship except under this provision that allows for designated carriers who are trained.
The image on the screen was stark: a Bible next to a gun with the inscription, "One will save your soul. One will save your life.''
Although the instructors for these faith-based tactical courses have to be state-certified teachers for concealed handgun permits, there is no statewide or standard training for the tactical training specified in state law. State Police keep a log of approved concealed handgun permit instructors, but they do not track who has submitted approved syllabuses for the faith-specific training, said State Police spokesman Senior Trooper Bryan Lee.
Ard said his office's curriculum goes over roles and responsibilities for lay security officers, how to interact with law enforcement, tips for emergency planning, education on firearms and ballistics as well as how to respond if someone does open fire in a church.
"The No. 1 thing we want to make sure we're paying attention to is safety for everyone," Ard said. "People have to understand what they have in their hand and how dangerous it is."
Though Live Oak United Methodist Church in Watson has had security procedures in place for the past few years, including two off-duty officers patrolling during services and a security team, the Rev. Mark Crosby, senior pastor, said he plans to send some members to the Livingston Parish sheriff's tactical training.
“I think it’d be beneficial because the size of our campus, it’s hard for even two (off-duty officers) to be able to patrol (everywhere)," said Crosby, whose church has about 3,000 members.
He said he realizes some members might not be keen on having concealed weapons at church, but he said he hopes the majority will be grateful to know someone in their trusted community is armed.
"My thought is, had there been a uniformed (officer) or even an usher outside the doors that was carrying (in Sutherland Springs), could they have prevented this massacre from happening?" Crosby said.
Although the Texas church shooting sparked conversation about safety between the Rev. Conway Knighton, of St. Mary Baptist Church, and other clergy, the Baton Rouge pastor said he still feels comfortable with only fully trained security officers wielding guns — something his church has invested in for Sunday services. St. Mary pays for two off-duty sheriff's deputies to patrol the premises, which Knighton said is much safer than having his civilian members carrying guns into church, even if those civilians undergo an eight-hour training.
"Officers are trained to make split decisions; most parishioners aren't going to have that," he said. "In hostile situations or unusual situations, if they're not trained to deal with that and you just have (someone without) professional training, other people can get hurt by that."
The Rev. Nichelle Landry, pastor of Victory International Ministries in Baton Rouge, said when the Texas church massacre came up at a Bible study the week following the incident, one of her volunteers offered to go through the certification process to carry a gun at services. But she declined.
"That was not my vision for God's house," Landry said. "I can't tell him what to do on his personal property, but we just want to remain prayerful, be aware of our surroundings. That's what we're encouraging our congregation to do."
Landry said her leadership team discussed further security options for their church, but they chose instead to beef up their evangelism, prayers and outreach to the residents of Baton Rouge.
"We cannot allow fear to seep in," Landry said.
For other faith leaders, it's about striking a balance.
"(Security) is something that we always think about, and yet we're sensitive to not let it affect our mission and our identity as a really open place," said Rabbi Natan Trief, of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge.
Trief said this past week, Beth Shalom leaders set up a security task force to head the synagogue's future safety protocols, weigh options and decide what methods will be most beneficial for them.
"(These kind of attacks) have been happening for a while, but (Texas) kind of fueled the desire to get on top of this once and for all," Trief said. "I just think the sheer number, the size of the town and that he literally went up and down the pews ... those statistics really allow you to see evil really close up; it strikes a chord."
Trief said during the synagogue's biggest holiday services, they hire an off-duty officer to patrol. Otherwise, the synagogue benefits from having some congregation members who are law enforcement officers and can always be aware at services. He said the new security task force will look into the option of training some eligible members so they could be armed at the synagogue but said the task force first will consult security professionals to see what's best.
For the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, Chief Financial Officer Joe Ingraham said he doesn't expect security protocols to drastically change immediately, but he said there's now a bigger push to better streamline procedures for all emergencies.
He said the diocese already has implemented an emergency-related smartphone app with information on what to do during events like hurricanes or active shooters, but it is still working on expanding that to each parish, which have varying security practices. Some individual parishes, often because of size, traffic or location, have a security guard, while others do not, Ingraham said. But, he said, he doesn't expect Catholic churches to pursue concealed carry options during Mass and would expect "strong opposition" to such a proposal.
"Unless the person is very skilled with a gun, like a police officer, you could cause a lot more problems," Ingraham said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has encouraged faith leaders to create procedures to follow during emergencies, including active shooters, through its Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The center was created under former President George W. Bush in 2006 in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, to better connect the faith- and community-based groups with the emergency management sector.
The center has since expanded its mission and provides resources to prepare for active shooters for faith-based groups across the country, including online trainings and videos as well as guidelines for how to set up an emergency plan.
Louisiana's concealed-carry firearms law puts churchgoers at elevated risk, which, as recent events sadly illustrate, needs to change.
At Istrouma Baptist Church, administrator Ray Raney developed a security plan for the church four years ago, which included hiring officers and using walkie-talkies among the team.
"I know how important it is," Raney said. "The only thing that's going to stop somebody with a weapon is a weapon."
He called most churches "soft targets" because attackers know they are typically gun-free zones. But at Istrouma on Sundays, he said they have two off-duty Baton Rouge police officers, six to eight current law enforcement officers who are also attending services, and security cameras. Raney and two of the church's pastors also have been certified to carry a concealed weapon at church, trained by certified deputies from the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office, who annually come to the church to recertify them.
"That's really where that training should be, in your church," Raney said, so officials can plan for particulars of the building or campus. However, he said Istrouma does not want to extend that training to more civilians, which he said he thinks could add confusion during an emergency situation.
"We try to be as proactive as we can," Raney said.