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Local pastors struggle with idea of having guards at church services

Holly Viers • Updated Nov 7, 2017 at 9:43 AM

KINGSPORT — Two days after a gunman entered a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas — killing 26 people and injuring 20 others — churchgoers and others throughout the nation are still searching for answers.

Called the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history, this most recent church shooting has some pastors thinking more seriously about church safety and security. The Times-News spoke with several local pastors on Monday to get their thoughts on what happened.

Harrison Bell, associate pastor at First Broad Street United Methodist Church

Bell said “unimaginable acts” like the Texas church shooting are happening all too frequently and are “displays of manifested evil, in a lot of ways.” Though the shooting has some Christians feeling afraid to go to church, Bell believes fear is not the answer.

“One of the things that we’re communicating to our congregation as we try to process this tragedy is that around 365 times in scripture, the phrase “do not be afraid” or “do not fear” shows up,” Bell said. “Scripture reminds us over and over that we are to be people that don’t live in fear.”

Bell added that two main safety measures are already in place at First Broad Street. First, all churchgoers are required to enter through one entrance on Sunday mornings, as the other entrances remain locked. Additionally, the church has hired an off-duty police officer to monitor church grounds on Sunday mornings, in full uniform.

“They’re there, number one, just to help people feel a little bit safer,” Bell said. “Number two, they’re there to act as a deterrent to keep anybody that would potentially have ill will from acting upon that ill will, and they’re there for protection in case the unimaginable were to happen here.”

Doug Tweed, Friends of the King Ministries

Tweed said that although the Texas shooting was a terrible tragedy, he doesn’t envision it affecting the security measures at his church.

“I don’t see us going to any intentional efforts at security guards or armed parishioners or anything of that nature, even though this is a horrible thing,” Tweed said. “It’s still reality that there are millions of church services in America, and this is an extraordinarily rare event that we wish never happened at all, but I think what we have to do is pray, and pray even more fervently for the nation and for the Church than we have.”

He added that anyone who may be afraid of coming to church should remember that “the answer to fear is faith.”

“One of the most horrible things about what a terrorist will do, or even a deranged person who may not be a terrorist in the true sense but who seems to be looking to do something drastic, is to create fear, because it steals people’s peace, it steals their joy and sometimes causes them to stop living life with the freedom that they lived it before,” Tweed said. “I don’t want to let fear win. I want faith to win.”

Joshua Kilbourne, Church Hill First United Methodist Church

“I struggle with the idea of security guards. In our church we have police officers who attend our church, and I appreciate the work they do. They provide a service when they're off duty to our church, and I appreciate that they're there, but it's not something that's official. I have others in the church who I know are diligent and pay attention. But I struggle with having an official security guard or church policy that designates someone to be armed. That's at odds with our faith, the emphasis on love of neighbor and not to answer violence with violence. But at the same time we do try to take care of the flock.”

“(Security) is something that we've talked about. We have a pre-school that meets at our church. We recently installed cameras. We do have people on Sunday morning who are watchful and when church starts there are only a couple of entrances that are open. As a Christian you want to make sure to care for the flock. What's happening in our nation with violence is a deeper concern about the spiritual condition of our nation and world. We as Christians need to be concerned about mental health and gun violence, and the culture of violence that we find ourselves in. The guiding principal for us is love of God and love of neighbor, which also in Jesus's teachings includes our enemies. That's a real challenge in our world today, how that plays into issues related to security and safety. I think about the witness of the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston when there was the shooting there, and the forgiveness of the people there in the face of the evil and hatred that they experienced. I think that's the kind of witness we're called to have, that deeper love that changes hearts. As Christians we're called to break the cycle of violence that we see. But, it's a challenge because you care about the safety of the flock and you want to make sure you do all you can to prevent something like that from happening here.”

Greg Burton, pastor of Colonial Heights Baptist Church

“We can no longer pretend there is no threat of violence to houses of worship. Today's culture is a seed bed of dysfunction and hatreds, even toward faith settings. While we are ultimately in the hands of God in all things, we must also take care to protect worshipers with reasonable means.”

Marvin Cameron, pastor of First Baptist Church of Kingsport

“Our church family joins millions around the world in praying for the people of Sutherland Springs. First Baptist regularly reviews our security policies but does not reveal them for the safety of our congregation. We are grateful for the outstanding work done by our staff, volunteers and the tremendous law enforcement of the Kingsport Police Department to keep our community safe during worship.”

George L. Winegar, pastor of Salley’s Chapel Baptist Church in Weber City

“It was awful,” veteran minister Winegar said of the Texas shootings. “When the services start at our church, we lock the doors.”

Mike Cutshaw, pastor of Trinity United Methodist church in Morristown (former Tri-Cities pastor)

“This is just going to reinforce what churches have already begun doing,” Cutshaw said of security procedures. “It’s going to be a different day.” He said at Trinity, security teams are in place, not necessarily armed but with people monitoring the door and locking the door during services. However, he said he can understand how some churches, especially smaller ones, would not lock doors.

“I don’t think that ought to change,” said Cutshaw, a former Kingsport police officer. “You can lock the doors, but you can’t lock people out.” Since the Texas shooting started outside, he said door monitoring might help. “Will it save every life? Not, but it would save a lot.”

Bob Hults, pastor of Amis Chapel United Methodist Church near Surgoinsville and Old Union UMC near Church Hill

”That’s ironic, because during my sermon at Old Union Sunday I said thank God we don’t have to worry about somebody coming in and blowing us away,” Hults, a Navy veteran, said of a sermon on Chrsitian martyrs imprisoned, tortured and killed by governments.

“I don’t understand how anybody could do that (open fire in a church),” Hults said, adding that he also can’t fathom churches arming parishioners and locking doors during a service although Shades of Grace, a UMC in downtown Kingpsort, hires an off-duty police officer to be at services.

“I feel that if Jesus was here he wouldn’t be pulling out a pistol or be armed,” Hults said.

Staff writers Jeff Bobo, Matthew Lane and Rick Wagner contributed to this report.

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