7 safety take-aways from the Colleyville synagogue hostage standoff as houses of worship coax people back from the pandemic
While last month’s hostage standoff at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in my home state of Texas seems light-years ago in today’s news cycle, some important lessons came from it, especially as we try to coax those in our congregation to return to in-person worship. Our call to protect ourselves and congregants from a deadly virus is similar to our responsibility to protect against targeted violence: concessions have to be made, safety and security protocols must be in place and, yes, you will pivot as events and circumstances change. Here are seven key things to keep in mind as you assess your post-pandemic security plan.
- Training is key. Following the incident in Colleyville, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said without a doubt he and the others would not have been prepared to act and eventually flee if it wasn’t for the safety training the congregation had previously received. True, you can’t plan for every scenario, but there are basic run, hide, fight tactics that can be considered. In this case, the hostages inched closer and closer to the exit door throughout the ordeal and fled when the rabbi threw a chair at the gunman as the situation deteriorated.
- People will look to the leaders in a crisis. If you are in any kind of leadership position within your parish, whether it be clergy, staff or even a well-known volunteer, people will look to you for guidance. Rabbi Cytron-Walker was praised for his clear thinking and steadfastness as the situation unfolded over eleven hours. Would you be prepared to be thrust in the same role?
- Security planning doesn’t have to cost a lot. Your first step to assessing your security should begin with your exterior perimeter. Simple, cost-effective measures like installing proper lighting, eliminating hiding spots and limiting entrance points cost very little and go a long way in prevention, which is the primary goal. FEMA offers an excellent planning guide for developing an emergency plan and, in the past, has provided opportunities for funding for at-risk faith-based communities. As the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warn of more attacks, DHS is now working with Congress to add funding for 2022.
- Houses of worship are ‘upping their greeting game.’ Rabbi Cytron-Walker did everything right when he opened the door and welcomed the stranger, isn’t this what we are called to do? He made tea for the man and engaged him in conversation; finding nothing in the moment that caused reason for concern. His actions are the perfect example of combining radical hospitality and threat assessment. Being safe and welcoming are values that should not be in competition with each other but should mutually reinforce our desire and commitment to each of them. True, Rabbi Cytron-Walker did everything right and still terror unfolded, but also consider this scenario. Dylann Roof, the gunman who killed nine people during a 2015 Bible study at Mother Emanuel church in South Carolina, later told FBI agents he was surprised when no one greeted or questioned him when he walked into the church; if they had he might have been too nervous to carry out the attack. This in no way absolves Roof of what he did, but it is worth noting he felt more at ease being undetected.
- Create a culture of safety. See something, say something. Raising awareness among your worship community and discussing how to report a concern is one of—if not the—most valuable areas to spend your time and effort. Lay out and communicate a reporting policy so that staff members and parishioners know how to inform a church administrator or leader if there is a concern or a domestic situation that could unfold at church. Considering you can do this at little or no cost, the return on your investment is huge.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. The same way we communicated social distancing and mask-wearing protocols to our congregation, it is imperative to communicate new security procedures. Push-back often has to do with not being told of a change or new expectations, especially if your house of worship is steeped in tradition. Communicating your plan comes in all forms including email, safety manuals and training sessions.
- Do what’s right for your house of worship. There is a big difference is what a church in lower Manhattan may need to be secure versus a small congregation in rural Colorado. The location is different, the membership makeup is different and, certainly, the resources are different. Don’t get too caught up in what works well for other places. Look at your congregation, heavily weigh your theology and consider where your money is best spent given your concerns. Even in the face of danger, your security plan should reflect your specific congregation’s needs, faith and values.
Jeanie Garrett is the author of Open Arms, Safe Communities: The Theology of Church Security. She wrote the book following 10 years as the Communications Director at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin and 10 years as a criminal justice news reporter. Garrett owns a consulting business that works with faith communities to develop and implement safety and security plans.