Gentle as a Dove, Wise as a Serpent
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” -Matthew 10:16, ESV
The shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs took place less than an hour from where my family lives. In November 2017, 26 lives were ended inside a house of worship in just a few short minutes.
The shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, and at Robb Elementary School near St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde, Texas, in 2022 felt just as close as I know the rectors and associate rectors personally and these heinous acts took lives from my beloved denomination.
Mass shootings have been a part of American life for decades, but when the travesty happens in a house of worship, those who are faithful are left in disbelief. As leaders in the church, it is our responsibility to be aware of warning signs and to be as hospitable as Jesus.
There are a wide variety of resources available from Episcopal Relief and Development, the FBI, and others that will help any vestry or leadership body hold these difficult conversations and develop an action plan in case of need. However, the best advice I can give is to connect directly with your local first responders to engage in the conversation.
Who am I?
I’m putting this article together, not as an expert, or even someone who has survived a mass shooting event. I am an active member in the life of the Episcopal Church, and when I served in the Congregational Development Department in my home diocese, we worked with the San Antonio Police Department and multiple congregations to put together a brief and comprehensive resource, the “CRASE Conversation Guide,” to help church leaders make a start on their church safety plan. CRASE stands for Citizen Response to Active Shooter Events, and here in Texas, it is the approved training course offered by first responder agencies to learn how to prepare for Active Shooter Events.
The resources below are offered to help you navigate the difficult conversations that need to take place in order for your community of faith to be as prepared as possible, while still extending grace-filled hospitality to all who seek God’s love in your community.
Learn the Need
Before any congregation or community of worship begins to build their own Active Shooter Preparedness Plan, we learned that the first step is to contact their local first responders. This step is essential to building relationships with those who protect your community, and to learning specifics about your area and your local resources. For us, that was the San Antonio Police Department; for others, it might be the sheriff or volunteer Fire Departments. Knowing your local laws is essential to being prepared. Does your community allow for open carry of weapons? Concealed carry? Are all firearms banned from houses of worship? Have you as a leadership body decided on how to address these differences?
Next, ask your church leadership to research and learn more about what to do during mass shooting events. This might be having your local first responders offer CRASE training during a Vestry meeting, or it may be watching the “Run, Hide, Fight” video produced by the FBI.
Research shows, as shared in the CRASE training, that one of the first ways to help prevent an active shooting event is through hospitality and kindness. As communities of faith, this should be one of the first things we consider as we build our plan.
By building community and relationships, all members of your faith community should be able to recognize new individuals. By making eye contact and greeting all newcomers, you share a welcome that a potential shooter may not have felt in a long time. This eye contact and conversation could also make you aware of any strange behavior that may be coming from a new individual.
Have the Conversation
As challenging as it is, church leadership needs to hold these tough conversations and make difficult decisions specific to your congregation and physical layout. In coordination with the San Antonio Police Department, a “CRASE Conversation Guide” was built to assist Vestries, Bishop’s Committees, and Safety Teams build a plan that makes sense for them. The steps include the following topics along with a description of what to do and action steps needed to build the plan:
- Walkthrough Your Campus and Sanctuary
- Consider Creating a Safety Team
- Train Staff and Volunteers
- Train Your Children and Youth Caregivers
- Inform Your Congregation
- Continue the Conversation
Did I Mention Love?
Time and time again, Jesus loves the outcasts. He heals the leper, he forgives the prostitute, he eats with those who society has deemed sinners. Jesus loves, and so should we. People who carry out such acts of violence are God’s children too. And they are hurting. We cannot accept their actions and we cannot stand aside while these shootings take place, but we can offer love, forgiveness and healing for those so lonely, hurting and desperate that they feel this is their only option.
If you feel moved to explore more ways you can make a difference and work to effect change, I encourage you to learn more about Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Bishops United advances four priorities in its work against gun violence: Public liturgy, spiritual support, sound teaching and persistent advocacy. Their website includes resources on liturgy and prayer, and education and advocacy.
Links to Resources mentioned in the article above:
CRASE Conversation Guide
CRASE Training Video
FBI Run, Hide Fight Video
Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD)
Bishops United Against Gun Violence
Haley Bankey is the Director for Partnerships & Program Innovation at the Episcopal Church Foundation and also serves as the Executive Director for Gathering of Leaders. Prior to working with Gathering of Leaders, Haley served as the Director of Operations and Management for her home parish of St. George Church and School in San Antonio, TX. She also ran her own faith-based operations consulting company with a primary focus on project management of multi-year, large scale community projects. She has been a website designer focusing on user experience, and is currently the Digital Product Owner for the Congregational Vitality Assessment Tool at ECF. Haley grew up in the Episcopal church in the Middle East and brings an international perspective to her work. Her passion is equipping lay and clergy leaders alike through leadership training and community building to grow God's church into the future.
- Crisis Preparedness: Making a Plan by Linda Grenz, an ECF Vital Practices tool
- Helping and Healing Resources (Children), an ECF Vital Practices tool
- Supporting First Responders by Bruce Barnes, Vestry Papers, November 2015