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'Smack them with a hymnal': Authorities train church leaders to respond if tragedy strikes

By: Dana Hedgpeth, The Washington Post
December 1, 2017 Updated: December 1, 2017 at 4:18 pm
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Dan Schaefer of Mount Airy Bible Church (center) listens to Sgt. Michael Zepp speak during the safety training for church leaders at the Carroll County Public Safety Training Center in Westminster, Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.

WESTMINSTER, Md. - A Maryland sheriff reached out to a few churches to gauge interest in a training session on how to react if a mass gunman entered their house of worship.

Sixty people signed up, but on the day of the training, 120 attended in the standing-room-only basement of a sheriff's office training facility about 60 miles north of Washington. The training wasn't new, but after shootings at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, a mosque in Quebec City and last month at a Texas church, officials are seeing a heightened concern for safety at places of worship - a place that usually brings a sense of comfort and peace for congregants.

Margaret Blye, 77, said she came to the training out of a sense of fear after a gunman fatally shot 26 people on a Sunday morning at a rural Texas church.

"We're scared," said Blye, who attends Millers United Methodist Church in Manchester, Marylandd. "You're sitting in church on Sundays thinking, anyone could come right in the door and do what he did to all those nice people and children."

Law enforcement agencies have long offered similar trainings to hospitals, schools, businesses and community groups. Now more police departments, including those in Montgomery and Queen Anne's counties in Maryland, and Prince William County, Virginia, are starting to offer additional sessions geared to churches. A program in Prince William is called "Worship Watch."

Most of the program's focus is on teaching people to think about three possible actions to take - run, hide or fight - in active-shooter scenarios. Previously, law enforcement typically advised those involved to stay put, not take action and call 911.

Many officials now encourage people to think about how they would react before an incident happens. The change, security experts said, is a result of law enforcement realizing situations unfold so quickly that people need tools to react. In most places of worship, people have their backs to doors and wouldn't see a gunman approaching.

"Whether it's a bike path, schools, movie theater or a church, these soft targets are more difficult to protect, and it has an impact on Americans' freedoms to go to public places," said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing policy think tank. "People feel more vulnerable."

Wexler compared the current safety training in churches to that of the 1950s. Back then, he said, "we were training people to hide in shelters if there were bombs. Now people are being trained on how to deal with mass murderers, even in churches."

At the recent two-hour training offered by the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, officials gave tips to the audience, which included organ players, pastors, clergy, choir directors, ushers, church trustees and secretaries, along with Sunday school teachers.

If a gunman enters a church, they were told to throw a barrage of hymnals at him or stab him in the shin with a letter opener. Those little pencils in the back of each pew? Use them to stab the gunman in the neck.

"I realize I'm asking people who preach compassion, love and peace to pick up a pen and try to stop a shooter if you have the opportunity," said Sgt. Michael Zepp, who led the training and oversees the sheriff's SWAT team and major crimes unit.

But, he said, it's the reality of the times.

"You can be a saint, and you can be a sinner," he said.

To be sure, Zepp said while some of the tips might sound trivial, they should be thought of as an interruption. Throwing a hymnal at a shooter, he said, "may not stop him but it may limit the casualties, and it's better than sitting there waiting to get killed."

Carroll County Sheriff James T. DeWees said he decided to expand the training because church leaders feel an obligation to protect their congregants.

"You always think of a church or place of worship as a spot where people can go and enjoy what they're there to do - pray and worship," DeWees said. "But that's changed.

"It's depressing, but there is no place that is off-limits, even churches."

The Rev. David S. Schafer, pastor of St. Benjamin's Lutheran Church in Westminster, said, in his 30 years as a pastor, he never imagined he would attend a training session on dealing with mass violence in church. Others agreed.

"They never talked about this in seminary," said one of his friends, the Rev. Eric Deibler, who runs Calvary Lutheran Church in Mount Airy, Maryland.

The Rev. Jim Edmonson said Elders Baptist Church in Sykesville, Maryland, has taken one step suggested by the sheriff's office, which is creating a security team to look at church entrances and exits while considering safety issues.

"I want to create a safe environment for my parishioners," he said. "I don't want parishioners thinking about security. If the congregation comes in worried about a shooter, they'll never be able to worship."

Although some of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office's suggestions might sound trite, Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, gave the sheriff's office credit for trying to give people information to help them feel more secure.

"They're at least trying to identify every possible option you can have as opposed to sitting there, waiting to be shot," he said. "You can smack them with a hymnal, and that beats sitting there doing nothing."

DeWees said he's not trying to make people paranoid about violence, but wants to prepare them to react. Zepp's advice: Run through the scenario 1,000 times in your head and hope you never have to put it to use.

Security experts and law enforcement officials say the chances of someone being a mass-shooting victim are far less than, say, a deadly traffic-related crash.

Zepp, who served nine years as a soldier in the U.S. Army, said he understands how hard it is to preach peace and nonviolence while also listening to tips on how to stop a gunman.

"Most of us spend an hour a week at what we think is the safest place we could ever be," Zepp said, referring to places of worship. "But there's no peace anywhere, anymore."

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