Recently I had a very unnerving experience happen during worship and it has caused me to consider our congregation's lack of preparation when it comes to emergencies or disasters. A mentally ill man whom none of us knew disrupted our worship service, behaving very erratically; he seemed to be having some sort of paranoid episode. For the sake of space, I won't go in to all the details, but suffice it to say that I and others were concerned about the potential for violence, including gun violence (among other things, he pulled out of his bag several spent 40-caliber shells and lined them up on the pew). A member called the police, who arrived quickly but remained in the narthex observing (we have windows from the narthex looking into the sanctuary; I could see a police officer and he could see the disturbed man, but nobody else could see the police officer; the officer would've removed the man from worship but our ushers asked him to wait, as the man had calmed down by the time the police arrived).
All ended well (the man left without incident after the sermon, and the police followed him out of the building to talk with him; they had dealt with him previously because he had recently caused some disturbances in local business), but I was shaken up and it made me realize just how unprepared we are for an act of violence or really any disaster (like a fire). We are a downtown church with an active homeless ministry; we are not unaccustomed to dealing with people with mental illness. A number of homeless men, some with mental illness and/or addiction issues, regularly worship with us. We believe very much in the supreme value of hospitality and in the value of opening ourselves to relationship with people who seem different from us. This is the first time I have ever felt unsafe. Every time this man reached into his backpack, I thought of Fred Winters, the Baptist pastor in Illinois who was shot and killed by a mentally ill man unknown to the congregation, in the middle of worship.
I do not want to be paranoid. I certainly do not want our members being suspicious of anyone who is unfamiliar. I want to navigate between being open, loving, and hospitable, and being responsible and safe. I am wondering if any of you have any kind of protocol or procedures in place for handling such disturbances, and if so, could you share what those are? Are there other measures that you personally or the congregation as a whole has put in place to protect yourselves (during worship or otherwise)? We regularly call the cops when we have disturbances on the grounds during the week. It was this kind of thing happening in the middle of worship (and when children were present) that really seemd to throw us for a loop. Especially alarming was the fact that our nursery and children's education wing were both unsecured when this man left worship. I would so appreciate any wisdom any of you might offer.
Matriarch Jennifer offers:
An emergency procedure of any kind is really important to have in place when a large number of people are in the church buildings, as is a child protection policy.
A small group of sensitive church folks could easily form a task group around safety/emergency procedures. I’d suggest contacting your local police and fire departments for some guidance, and a local mental health agency for the same. We did just that a few years ago, and it was a very good experience.Mompriest writes:
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