Area churches look for ways to be safe and welcoming

5:46 p.m Monday, Nov. 6, 2017 Local
Nick Wagner
An ATF agent walks toward the First Baptist Church where a gunman opened fire on a Sunday service and killed at least 26 people in Sutherland Springs, on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. Faith leaders in the Austin area say they are looking for ways that their houses of worship can be places that offer both safety while welcoming people with open arms. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When Steve Blake, lead pastor and founder of Catalyst of Austin heard the news of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Sunday, he immediately felt a gut-wrenching pain. He thought of all the pain and loss, and couldn’t help but think of his own East Austin church.

“While churches have always been a place of comfort, hope and peace, unfortunately they’ve also been the epicenter of attacks and demonstrations of evil,” he said.

In the aftermath of what’s being described as the largest church shooting in modern American history, Austin-area faith leaders are looking for ways that their houses of worship can be places that offer safety while welcoming people with open arms.

“I guess every pastor now has to think about these scenarios,” Blake said. “It’s unfortunate, but a reality of the world we live in now.”

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Former FBI Counterintelligence Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi recommended churches consider a security plan that takes into account the size of the facility, the congregation and the neighborhood, among other things. “If you’re a church leader,” he said on MSNBC, “it’s time for you to sit down with your board, your elders, your parishioners and discuss that security plan.”

In Williamson County, Sheriff Robert Chody on Monday announced plans to organize a summit to offer security tips to churches of all sizes.

Although interested in a potential summit, Brian Ferguson, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Wildflower Church in South Austin said that perhaps what would be more helpful would be a summit addressing the culture of violence.

“There’s a bigger problem than just churches,” Ferguson said. “We need to transform the culture. Try to bring more love in the world. I don’t know what it’ll take to change things.”

PHOTOS: 26 killed in church shooting in Sutherland Springs

Hours after 26 people were killed in the Sutherland Springs church shooting, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said Texans can help prevent mass shootings by carrying concealed guns.

“All I can say is in Texas at least we have the opportunity to have conceal carry,” he told Fox News. “And so … there’s always the opportunity that a gunman will be taken out before he has the opportunity to kill very many people.”

Griff Martin, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church of Austin, said in an email that the “Gospel response to violence is and always has been resurrection and it’s time as the church that we use our resurrection voice to remind the world there is a better way forward, a path of wholeness and good will, not the path of brokenness, division and violence that plague us today. We can do better and the church needs to raise her voice to demand that we do so.”

The church will hold a prayer vigil for the shooting victims at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Donations to cover medical and funeral expenses for the Sutherland Springs church members will be accepted.

“It’s a hard time to be a minister,” said Ferguson, whose church has been reviewing its safety measures since the mass shooting Oct. 1 in Las Vegas. “People are really searching for stability.”

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