VALDOSTA – When CrossPointe Church began 14 years ago in the pastor’s living room, no one thought about security.
However, an “incident” 12 years ago partially influenced David Rogers, lead pastor of CrossPointe, to think about church security, he said.
Protective measures were put in place when an intoxicated man with a machete walked into a revival, making his way from the children’s wing to the choir loft where Rogers was preaching. He said the man stood behind him with the machete; however, he was escorted out by police officers.
“To just find out that a guy had just walked up behind me while I was preaching with a machete was pretty alarming, I guess, to know that somebody can walk through a church with a machete and there’s nothing in place to stop a guy with a machete,” Rogers said.
The Valdosta Daily Times spoke with faith leaders around the community about how the rise of mass shootings at places of worship affects how they lead and provide security to their flocks, following the Dec. 29 mass shooting in White Settlement, Texas.
The Texas gunman murdered two people during a Sunday service at West Freeway Church of Christ before being shot and killed by a member of the congregation.
In Georgia, state residents have been able to carry concealed firearms into almost any location after the passing of HB 60 – nicknamed the “guns everywhere bill” – with a few notable exceptions: one being places of faith.
The law allows leaders at houses of worship to set their own guidelines on permitting weapons under their roofs.
Reflecting on its own congregation and procedures, CrossPointe established a security team, all members plainly dressed and unknown to others. They are off-duty police officers, military members and emergency medical technicians.
“All of our security team is very discreet,” Rogers said. “If you came here, you wouldn’t see armed guards standing at the corners. You wouldn’t know who they are. They’re very much blended into the culture of our church.”
While not armed guards, some of the members of the security team are indeed armed with guns, the pastor said. They are trained by local law-enforcement, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The security team attends CrossPointe events and are accompanied by local uniformed officers at large events such as Easter Sunday. An alarm system and cameras provide added security.
CrossPointe and local police officers have an understanding absent of a set time for officers to be present occasionally in the church parking lot, Rogers said.
“I think a lot of that is the security of itself,” he said. “If it’s predictable, then people who want to do harm would be able to understand when they’re going to be there and when they’re not.”
As for guns on church property, CrossPointe has adopted a policy that simply encourages people to read, understand and abide by state laws.
“We don’t encourage people to just walk in and carry guns. This is a place of worship,” Rogers said. “We don’t really stand from the stage and have a policy encouraging people to bring your guns if you’re a concealed carry.”
When he receives questions from church goers asking about guns in the building, he informs them to be aware of what concealed carry laws say, he said.
“Really, the laws for places of worship have transitioned so much over the last couple of years. We’ve seen the State of Georgia laws change several times since we put in place a security team,” Rogers said.
“I guess it’s not so much what do we allow; we ask people to turn and look at the law and what does the law say and whatever the law allows you to do, that’s up to you. But we don’t encourage you to just walk into a place of worship with guns.”
He said the state mandates either a no-gun policy or a policy similar to CrossPointe’s, which states the church will not be selective of who can carry a gun if they are capable of doing so by law.
Rogers said it is the assumption of the church that any policy hindering the presence of guns on campus would be ignored by most people if they are legally able to carry guns.
“We don’t ask people not to, but we encourage people not to,” he said.
Rogers called recent mass shootings in places of worship horrible and said congregations should be more assured of their safety.
“I believe that churches and places of worship are just very soft targets, and I think people who want to do harm to other people recognize Sunday mornings are times of gathering of people coming in,” he said.
The Rev. Floyd Rose, founder of Serenity Church, also talked about the shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ in late December.
“I was shocked to learn that so many people in there had guns,” Rose said, “and they call it neutralizing him (the shooter); they killed him, that’s what they did.”
He talked about his opposition to the use of guns.
“The eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, foot for a foot philosophy leaves everybody blind, everybody crippled and everybody dead. Just don’t do it,” he said.
“I think that if I gave up my life to save a life that would be more important than me taking a life.”
Serenity Church, non-denominational, has enforced a strict unwritten no gun policy since its establishment in 2009, Rose said.
“We don’t allow people to come in there with guns,” he said. “I personally don’t believe in it. I don’t think anybody (is) in there with guns. If they are, I don’t know about it.”
If anyone does attempt to enter the church with a gun, Rose said they will be asked to take the weapon elsewhere.
Law-enforcement officers must remain in the church’s foyer with their guns; they are restricted from bringing them into the sanctuary.
“I don’t believe in it because I don’t see how you can believe in Jesus and everything He stood for, and then, pack a gun,” Rose said. “I just don’t see that.”
Brian Childress, former Valdosta police chief, at times would order that a patrolman sit outside at Serenity around 5:30 a.m. ensuring Rose’s safety as he entered the church, the reverend said.
He said he did not request the escort and he would never ask for it.
While Rose said he believes other churches should follow the model of disallowing guns, he concludes he has no authority to determine other church policies.
Serenity has no written policy or procedure and Rose has no plans to craft one.
Church security consists of an alarm system, sound detection at the entry doors and cameras.
In the case of danger, Rose urges the police be called.
St. John Catholic Church
Within the Catholic church, "ways of peace and reconciliation" are the principles that guide religious leaders to ban weapons in places of worship.
“It’s supposed to be a sanctuary for worship, and so, it’s supposed to be a place of hospitality,” said Father Brian LaBurt of St. John Catholic Church.
A July 2014 policy stated all Catholic churches within the archdioceses of Atlanta and Savannah should prohibit guns and knives with blades longer than five inches within any Catholic church, school, administrative office and other buildings.
“The chief shepherd of the archdioceses is the bishop. We’re here assigned by the bishop, and so, if he makes a policy we are obliged to follow it,” LaBurt said.
According to LaBurt, the parish council has an ongoing discussion on weapons in the church. In fact, some of the ushers and others within the parish attended a civilian response to active shooter events seminar led by Valdosta State University Police Sgt. Heidi Browning in early December. Church ushers and greeters have been on heightened alert to suspicious activity, LaBurt said.
“There wasn’t a perceived need for one,” LaBurt said.
There are discussions at St. John for adding security to the church but little in the way of specifics yet. For now, the church finds comfort in knowing it has police and active military who attend mass, although they aren’t always in uniform. But when police are in uniform, they are considered a “common sense exception” to the no firearms rule.
“People are concerned. People are not naive,” LaBurt said. “It can happen anywhere and nobody is exempt.”
Manantial de Vida
Carlos Ceja noticed a recent change in his congregation.
“When we say, ‘let's pray,’ people are accustomed to close their eyes, but now, I notice that (some people keep their eyes open),” he said.
Noting that people do not usually worry about danger, Ceja, the pastor of Manantial de Vida church, said the mass shooting at the church in White Settlement forced him to focus on how to keep his congregation safe.
“We had a meeting last night about security. We have come to the point where we need to do something, but we don’t know exactly what is the best way to go,” he said. “Since this (shooting) happened in Texas, I’ve been really concerned. “
Ceja said a police officer came to one of his services before and his congregation appeared nervous to have a firearm inside the church. He said his church does not have a rule about guns, but he does not encourage parishioners to bring guns to Sunday services.
“As a person, I would be nervous about what is the purpose,” Ceja said. “Is he bringing the gun to protect us or to do something?”
He cited a lack of information and comfort in the Hispanic community about using guns.
“The church used to be a safe place for people but not anymore,” Ceja said. “Every service, I’ve been kind of looking around, and I was thinking of hiring an officer to put outside but it costs money.”
The church follows city requirements of hiring security for community events, and Ceja said he believes security during services is the next step. He said he hopes hiring armed security and training his staff will keep his congregation confident and comfortable.
The prevalence of mass shootings has changed the mentality of churchgoers, Ceja said, but he hopes that change is temporary. Otherwise, he may lose part of his flock.
“If things keep going that way," he said, "I’m pretty sure that people will quit coming to church in a few years."
Rabbi Moshe Elbaz will not forget that Friday.
More than a year ago, Temple Israel held its usual Friday service when a large, tall man wearing a leather butcher’s apron silently entered the building.
“He walked in and scared the hell out of us,” Elbaz said.
The hulking man walked up to the rabbi and asked if he believed in angels. Elbaz had a quick decision to make: to hit his panic button or not. He chose against alerting the police to avoid causing further fright.
Luckily, it turned out the man was not a threat, but in need of help.
He was distraught over his sick daughter and wanted someone to pray for her.
The incident was one of the two main reasons the synagogue took serious measures to increase security.
The other was the 2018 mass shooting that took place at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Immediately after the attack on Tree of Life, members of Temple Israel were concerned for their safety and went to the Valdosta Police Department for aid, the rabbi said.
“We met with the new police chief and she offered us a police vehicle parked here for a period of a month or so after the incident in Pittsburgh,” Elbaz said.
Because of the Tree of Life attack and the incident with the man in Temple Israel, members of the board decided to install a camera system, a security code system and members received active shooter training from the police department.
Though the temple does not have armed security during services, it does hire security for special events.
“High Holidays and bar mitzvahs, we hire a police (officer) off-duty, a vehicle sitting right here for three hours,” Elbaz said.
The leader of Temple Israel said the recent rise of anti-semitism caused him to write a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp asking the governor to consider establishing a commission of Jewish leaders and Georgia officials to discuss security concerns. As of this publication, the governor’s office had not responded to the Oct. 28 letter.
Valdosta Islamic Center and Mosque
Zahid Hussain holds a simple rule.
“Never inside – no gun, no anything,” he said.
While firearms are not allowed inside the center, Hussain, chairman of the Valdosta Islamic Center and Mosque, said the center has hired police from the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office in the past for security.
Although worshippers are forbidden from bringing weapons into Friday prayer, Hussain stressed it is not the belief of Muslims to tell people who should or should not brandish a weapon.
“Muslims don’t take guns from anybody,” he said.
Hussain emphasized that regardless of how someone prays or where they pray, everyone worships the same higher power.
“I only pray to God. Everybody has the same God and I pray to God,” Hussain said.
This story was updated at 10:25 a.m., Jan. 11.