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Security in the sanctuary: Safety plans for Denton churches

Denton church leaders continue to plan for safety in their sanctuaries after Sunday’s shooting at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church.

Sunday's massacre killed 26 people, many of them children, and injured 20 others, some critically. It ranks both as the worst mass shooting inside a church and the worst mass shooting in Texas.

Sunday’s tragedy comes as memories of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting are still fresh in people’s memories, said the Rev. Cedric Chambers, pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Southeast Denton.

Nine people, including the pastor, were killed in June 2015. It was considered the country’s deadliest church shooting until Sunday.  

The Rev. Cedric Chambers, pastor of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church DRC
The Rev. Cedric Chambers, pastor of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church 

“What we would think — that a church would be the most safe, sacred place — isn’t so in the world we live in now,” Chambers said. “You just never know what you might encounter. But you have to have the conversation about how you will protect your parishioners.”

Church leaders at Mount Calvary have taken precautions for years, he said.

“We don’t want to treat anyone differently, but we have to do some things in regards to security,” Chambers said.

Mision Templo Bethel senior pastor Sofia Paiz DRC
Mision Templo Bethel senior pastor Sofia Paiz 

At Mision Templo Bethel in Denton, senior pastor Sofia Paiz, too, said increasingly people cannot feel safe at school, at the store, on the streets or even in a house of God. 

"This discourages people from coming to church," Paiz said. 

Mision Templo has people at the doors welcoming others as they arrive.

"We may not know who we are welcoming," Paiz said, adding that the church is talking about what else members might do to increase safety and security. 

The Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth released a prepared statement after receiving calls about security at its many buildings in urban and rural locations. The diocese covers 28 North Texas counties, including Denton County, with 90 parishes and 19 schools.

“Each parish develops its safety plans in accordance with the local situation,” wrote Pat Svacina, communications director for the diocese.

Those plans are developed in cooperation with local law enforcement, he said.

“In some instances, law enforcement is present onsite during weekend Masses,” Svacina said. “In virtually every parish of the diocese, members of the congregation who attend Mass regularly include law enforcement officers and other first responders who make themselves known to the priests and lay ministers.”

On Christmas Eve 2015, two Denton churches deployed extra security after receiving bomb threats. Services were held without incident at Denton Bible Church and St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.

Other Denton places of worship have seen troubling violence. Days before the bomb threat, an arsonist set a series of fires that damaged the Denton Universal Unitarian Fellowship on Dec. 16, 2015. An arsonist threw a Molotov cocktail at the Denton Islamic Society two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

Mohammed Fouad, the imam at the Denton Islamic Society, began locking the mosque doors in between prayer times at the start of the year. The extra precautions came on the heels of a shooting at a Canadian mosque that killed six people and a fire that destroyed a mosque in Victoria, Texas.

At First Baptist Church Denton, the Rev.  Jeff Williams said church leaders have thought about security for many years.

Dr. Jeff Williams, pastor at First Baptist Church DentonDRC
Dr. Jeff Williams, pastor at First Baptist Church Denton

People have become accustomed to security measures at football games and other large gatherings, he said. 

“We do have people who are vigilant and watching as people come in,” Williams said.

Those watchful eyes notice what people are wearing and carrying, he added.

“If we have a question, we investigate it,” Williams said.

Denton church leaders feel the weight of what happened Sunday, which claimed about half the congregation of a small church in a tiny town.

“There are very difficult days ahead for the church,” Williams said. “We believe God will take them through this.”

Staff writer Caitlyn Jones contributed to this report. 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

FEATURED PHOTO: The sanctuary of Mount Calvary Baptist Church. DRC file photo