WASHINGTON, DC – Dozens of faith leaders from around the country met at FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC recently to try and figure out how to put a stop to domestic terror attacks against houses of worship: not just churches but synagogues, temples and mosques as well. It's being called an epidemic and faith leaders say they need more than just prayer.
"We want to have a welcoming church where people are really welcomed in, but then at the same token we have to have a secure place to worship," said Mary Marr, founder of the Christian Emergency Network.
"People are afraid," said meeting organizer John Cohen. Cohen is a Criminal Justice Professor at Rutgers University and Homeland Security Expert.
"They're afraid to go to mosque, they're afraid to go to church, they're afraid to go to synagogue," Cohen said. "America over the past several years has faced an increasing number of acts of violence targeted at facilities and individuals because of the faith of those individuals."
There are multiple examples, but here are a few of the worst:
August 2012 - A man killed six others and himself at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It happened as members were preparing a meal.
June 2015 - Members at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina were having midweek Bible study when a stranger showed up. They welcomed him, and he participated until he took aim at the faithful, murdering 9 Christians.
November 2017 - An attacker unleashed a hail of gunfire at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people, including an unborn child.
October 2018 - A gunman stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during morning Shabbat, killing 11 people and wounding 7 others.
April of 2019 - A 21-year-old accused of scorching 3 black churches in Louisiana. Thankfully no lives lost there.
"Churches are soft targets," said meeting participant Randy Vaughn, senior pastor of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in Port Arthur, Texas. "African American churches have always been seemingly more trusting of people who come and go, more embracing of strangers."
"The fact that we had senior officials from the FBI, senior officials from DHS, senior law enforcement officials from cities across the country, faith leaders from across the country together in one room, talking about this problem and talking about solutions, that makes me optimistic," Cohen said.
The group discussed security measures houses of worship can put in place – inexpensive options like training volunteers on what to watch out for.
"Many of us cannot afford security guards, officers and so forth, and so now how do we begin to utilize members of the congregation," Vaughn said.
Another main focus was making sure information from faith communities flows to law enforcement and vice-versa when an emergency situation happens.
"We're going to actually be forming what we would call a Christian unified command, in the realm of emergency response they call it incident management system," Marr said. "It's kind of what Nehemiah did – he gave everybody a role. It's the same principle, you give everybody a role and you train together and then when a threat comes you respond together."
A significant portion of the day was dedicated to the important role media play, especially Christian media.
"We have to know our facts and do our journalistic work as well as we possibly can," said Craig Parshall, general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters Association. "But then we have to remind people that in the middle of crisis, in the middle of chaos, there's a God who's still in control."
"We know even from the New England Journal of Medicine that 90 percent of people when they're in crisis, will ask, 'Where is God in this?'" Marr said. "When people ask us that question, are we ready to give an answer for the hope that's in us, in word and deed?"
One familiar message that came out of the meeting: If you see something that you think is suspicious, say something. According to law enforcement officials, bystanders are still the biggest key to stopping criminals before they strike.