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Colorado houses of worship address safety concerns before and after shootings

During a Sunday service at New Hope Baptist Church in Denver in October, a visitor stood up and began shouting during the sermon.

It was a few weeks before a shooter killed 26 people and wounded 20 others at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, but it still alarmed many in the pews that day, said Rev. Eugene Downing Jr., the pastor at New Hope.

“That created some uncertainties for members of our congregation,” Downing said. “Some anxiety.”

But the worshipers also were prepared, trained in a protocol developed after nine people were killed during a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

“We are at a day and age where security, unfortunately, has to be a part of the ministry,” Downing said.

The Texas tragedy understandably increased anxiety for worshipers across the nation. It also drew the attention of law enforcement officials.

Houses of worship across Colorado are exploring heightened security, including installing better lighting and surveillance cameras, practicing emergency-response drills, and designating panic rooms to keep their buildings, and themselves, safe.

On Nov. 6, the day after the Sunday morning massacre in Texas, Aurora police posted “Safety Tips for Communities of Faith” — a six-step instructional sheet on how to stay safe — on Twitter and Facebook. A week later, the department provided “special tactics training” at Highpoint church.

“We put that out,” Aurora police spokesman Officer Kenneth Forrest said. “We’ve been working with churches for years on how to keep their congregations safe and have a plan, hopefully, mitigating the effects if there is an active shooter.”

Colorado has its own painful legacy of gun violence in public places. A disgruntled parishioner killed four people at New Life Church in Colorado Springs in 2007. A doctoral student at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus murdered 12 people and injured dozens of others in a crowded Aurora movie theater in 2012. A gunman killed three people in a Thornton Walmart on Nov. 1.

“We certainly mourn any time gun violence happens in our communities,” said Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches. “It’s especially jarring to us. Places of worship are places of peace and love.”

Although a June 2015 shooting by a white supremacist occurred far away — inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. — it proved painfully close for many Colorado worshipers.

“That felt like part of our family,” said Miller, a lifelong member of the Campbell Chapel AME Church in Denver. “Congregations here are looking at these issues of safety.”

In Sutherland Springs, the gunman showed up at a festival a week before the shooting acting strange — enough to draw the attention of two longtime parishioners. In retrospect, the festival sighting is now discussed as a missed opportunity for prevention.

Safety tips passed along by Aurora police, as well as other law enforcement agencies, include having trained observers — inside the buildings and out — looking for suspicious people and activity. Heightened vigilance at a place of worship, which are traditionally halls of peace and refuge, now seems like a necessary precaution. Still, churches have always welcomed strangers.

“We don’t want to get on a path where we are fearful of each other as we worship God,” Miller said.

At New Hope in October, Downing was preaching a sermon based on Old Testament readings about a new king doing away with reforms of the previous king. The sermon was intentionally drawing parallels to present-day America, but the names Donald Trump and Barack Obama were not used.

New Hope has a racially diverse congregation but is predominately black. A white man in the audience, holding a Bible, rose to his feet and began shouting.

“He began waving his Bible,” Downing said. “I saw him and figured he was celebrating the sermon with me.”

Downing kept preaching — and the man kept shouting. Downing soon realized the man was proclaiming his support of President Trump and, in doing so, disrupting the sermon.

“I asked: ‘Someone, please check on our brother in the rear of church,’ ” Downing said.

Church staffers made their way toward the man, but he quickly left the sanctuary, got into a vehicle and drove away.

“I never stopped preaching, and the service continued,” Downing said. “If I had stopped preaching, it would have been a bigger scene.”

Downing, guided by a 30-page safety protocol New Hope developed after Charleston, filed a police report after the service. The document was drawn up after church staff and some members had attended Department of Homeland Security seminars on safety.

Security at New Hope includes 32 security cameras, as well as trained security and law enforcement officers staffing the building and services. Pastors and the congregation have worked on further strengthening their relationship with Denver police.

Temple Emanuel, the largest and oldest synagogue in the Rocky Mountain region, with about 2,000 member households, contracts with a private security firm, as well as uniformed Denver police officers who moonlight at Friday night and Saturday morning services.

“It’s saddening that we’ve had to get to this point, where we have to put security protocols in place,” Rabbi Joe Black said. “I’d rather spend our budget on social justice issues, or education, or teaching, or more staff.”

Recent incidents of anti-Semitism, including white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, Va., in August and October, have captured the attention of temple members.

“We’ve reached this tipping point where members said they’re not comfortable because of issues of violence,” Black said. “We realized we had to increase our security profile so members of our congregation would feel safe.”

Clergy interviewed for this story were reluctant to give too much detail about security, worrying that the information could lead to breaches. The question of guns, concealed weapons in particular, is especially sticky.

“We do not have a policy or a protocol on that,” Black said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are (armed members). It’s nothing we encourage or have a program for.”

At Glory of God Lutheran Church in Wheat Ridge, doors are attended and locked when services start. Emergency-exit plans have been discussed and practiced. Contemplating or incorporating concealed weapons, however, has been off base. “We don’t discuss that. We have no policy on that,” Pastor Emily Cardin said.

The church does have a “safety and security team,” Cardin said, as well as a good working relationship with the local police and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which held a church safety forum in November.

“We’re very blessed we work with them,” Cardin said.

The Texas shooting happened in a rural, small community of about 400 people, 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. Aurora, a city of more than 360,000, has several churches with more than 400 parishioners each. One practice that all houses of worship should share, no matter their size or location, is to have an emergency plan, said Forrest, the Aurora police spokesman.

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