In light of several violent or otherwise criminal acts in or near area places of worship in recent years, local religious leaders are looking to strike the right balance between security and accessibility.
Churches and synagogues have always been places of sanctuary, where anyone is welcome to seek answers or assistance. They don’t keep regular business hours and they don’t turn anyone away — and, lately, that open-door policy has left them open to some safety issues.
Last month, a man claiming to be under the influence of drugs went inside the Grace Lutheran Church and threatened to blow it up with the parishioners inside. Meanwhile, there have been break-ins at St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church and the First Presbyterian Church, and the Temple Beth El synagogue has been vandalized several times in recent years.
Perhaps the most devastating act of crime in a local place of worship occurred in December 2012, when a elementary school music teacher entered the First United Presbyterian Church of Coudersport and fatally shot his ex-wife as she played the organ for the congregation.
Between 1999 and 2013, a total of 773 deadly force incidents occurred at faith-based organizations in the United States, according to Christianity Today.
To that end, the Rev. Stacey Fussell, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Chautauqua Place, said a drug-related shooting that took place on the sidewalk outside the church in December 2012 was discontenting.
“The Ascension is not in the very best neighborhood, but I think we try to be conscious and aware,” Fussell said. “Everyone is welcome. You can’t look at people as threats — just folks coming to the church to find God.”
Fussell said the church is listed as a “safe-zone church,” having rigid rules and training in place for dealing with children.
“All of our volunteers get background checks and undergo Safe Church Training,” Fussell said. “We have a focus on making sure our church is completely safe.
“I think some of it is a reflection of other societal ills,” Fussell said. “I think we’re seeing other major problems in our culture played out and the more the churches intersect with people in need, the more likely you’re going to have occurrences like that.
“People that have mental illnesses that aren’t being addressed, people who are desperate because of extreme poverty, people who have drug and alcohol abuse issues — they’re going to seek help,” Fussell added. “The safety nets are just overburdened, and the logical place for them to seek more help is at churches.”
Fussell said most other relief agencies are set up differently than churches, having elaborate security systems and specific protocol in place to keep potentially threatening individuals out.
“I think most churches in Bradford probably already have security or alarm systems for when the church isn’t occupied,” she said, “but because churches have people dropping in for different reasons at different times and it’s not a uniform clientele, there’s not one protocol to fit everyone.”
A few months ago, Bradford City Police officer Hiel Bartlett gave a talk at the church on safety and how to react in case of an emergency. “It’s good to have that information on hand, to play out a scene in your head so when the time comes, you’re less likely to panic or freeze with fear,” Fussell said.
“I guess we need to remember, when you look at a town like Bradford with 30 plus churches, incidents are the exception not the rule,” Fussell said. “It really is still very much a rarity, and I think you’re still by far, safe in church. That’s a big part of our faith — we don’t think violence gets to win.”
For his part, the Rev. Ray Gramata, pastor of St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church, said some concerns over safety were voiced by members of his congregation following the break-ins, but “not on a consistent basis.”
“You can’t check everybody coming in because it would defeat the purpose of a church, which is to be an open space to come and worship God,” Gramata said. “We’ve had three break-ins here since I’ve been here, and we had to put in a security system with alarms for the doors and security cameras.”
Gramata said he feels safer with the location of the church being so near the Bradford City Fire Department in case of an emergency, but the advent of increased safety issues is troubling.
“It’s a recent reflection of society today,” Gramata said. “In the old days, the church would never be locked up at all. It was once a place people could come day or night for spiritual needs.
“It’s hard for towns to reflect upon that because most people grew up and didn’t even lock their doors,” Gramata added. “The whole society is different — not just in our country but in the world. I look at it two different ways, loss of respect for the individual and personal property, and the old catchphrase, they need the money for drugs.”
Meanwhile, Larry Lawson, president at Temple Beth El, said several youths have been caught on camera vandalizing the synagogue, including spray painting the exterior, but he does not wish to impose glaring security measures that make visitors uncomfortable.
“We have security cameras and things I regret to say we have, but they are inconspicuous,” Lawson said. “If you’re going to be a place of peace, you have to kind of absorb some of the damage in order to have a place where we don’t deter people.
“You must do everything possible to accomplish what you’re supposed to do and not do things that work against that,” Lawson added. “If we followed all the popular views, every time we turned around we’d be spending money.”
Lawson said he knows of other synagogues in the state that have had swastikas and certain body parts spray painted on them, and in reaction the synagogues list fake addresses to prevent further vandalism.
“Some synagogues are like a prison, with electric locks and all kinds of cameras staring at you,” Lawson said. “To a person seeking peace, this is a big deterrent, and it kind of echoes the ancient persecutions.
“We like the idea that anybody can walk in and go to services, but we don’t want to invite trouble,” he added. “For me, the whole thing is balancing what is necessary to keep things reasonably secure and to keep reasonably close to our mission statement.”