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January 27, 2019, 10:44 GMT
By Mary Pflum
When Chris Crews prepares for the church on Sunday morning, he follows a routine. He wakes us up early. He puts on his church clothes, a shirt with buttons and a pair of blue jeans or khakis. Then, before he leaves the house with his wife and two children, he sings a firearm – a 9 mm or a .45 – on his right hip.
"I'm not going home without a gun," Crews said. "It looks like the old American Express card ads: I just do not leave without."
Crews, 47, is part of the security team of Ava Assembly of God, a Pentecostal community of 300 members in Ava, Missouri. The church has no paid guards. Instead, it counts on a team of 18 church members to keep fellow towns safe. None of the members of the security team is paid and everyone carries guns.
Ava Assembly of God launched the security team 18 months ago after the pastor of the Church, Buddy Boyd, received threats in connection with a domestic dispute involving members of the community.
In response to this, and amid the growing fear of mass shooting in general, a congregation proposed to form a security team. Boyd quickly agreed.
"Times have changed," Boyd said. "The number one concern is to protect our parishioners."
Pastor Buddy Boyd, left, and Chris Crews, member of the church's security team, are waiting for church members to come to Ava Assembly of God. Whitney Curtis / for Good King News
The Ava Assembly of God's voluntary security team is one of the hundreds of teams established in recent years by churches and synagogues to protect followers. According to several security companies and non-profit organizations specializing in providing security training to religious institutions, the growing number of teams coincides with a series of high-profile attacks that have shown the vulnerability of houses of worship.
Carl Chinn, founder of the Faith Based Security Network, a non-profit organization that provides security guidelines to faith communities, said he is aware of more than 1,000 volunteer-run security teams in homes of worship in the US Two hundred of them, in 34 states , have registered with his network in the past 11 months. The majority has armed members.
Many of the teams were formed as a direct response to deadly attacks on houses of worship, such as the 2015 shooting at an Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people; the 2017 shooting at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church in Texas, killing 26 people, including an unborn child; and the October recording in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed 12 of them.
"There is always a lot of interest in forming a team or improving safety immediately after an attack," Chinn said.
Most states allow hidden firearms in houses of worship, although many, including Missouri, where Ava Assembly or God is, require congregations to receive advanced permission from religious leaders, according to the National Conference of Legislative States.
Since 2013, at least seven states have relaxed the restrictions on bringing weapons into homes of worship, said Allison Anderman, acting lawyer at the Giffords Center to prevent gun violence, advocates arms control and disapproves of rifles in religious settings. In South Dakota, for example, parishioners can carry weapons in homes of worship, even when they are on school campuses, where weapons are normally not allowed. And just last week, Virginia's Senate approved a law that would allow parishioners to legally bring weapons into homes of worship.
A surveillance camera monitor is seen during a church service at Ava Assembly of God.Whitney Curtis / for Good King News
Legality aside, guns are still not welcome in many churches. Both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Church of the United Methodists have issued statements in which guns are considered inappropriate for houses of worship, and the leaders of several Catholic archdisciples, from St. Louis to Atlanta, have pronounced against guns in their churches.
Proponents of arms control have protested against weapons in homes of worship, on the grounds that armed volunteers can cause confusion for law enforcement agencies that respond to reports of a shooting. And then there are the unintentional shootings that are accompanied by weapons, such as the man who accidentally shot himself and his wife in a church in Tennessee in 2017 during a conversation about church photographers.
Chinn says there is evidence that church security teams can save lives, citing an incident in 2007 in which Jeanne Assam, a former police officer and volunteer member of the security team, shot an armed intruder in a church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which had two teenagers killed in the parking lot.
"People have come to recognize that they can not rely solely on calling 911 during an attack as a security plan," Chinn said. "They know they have to do something more."
& # 39; Shot everywhere & # 39;
Like many of the members of Ava Assembly of God's security team, Crews has no background in law enforcement. He worked for 20 years as a satellite developer in Los Angeles before moving to Missouri in 2015. He decided to join the security team when it formed in 2017 after being worried about the massive shootings that he read in the headlines.
"You can not just go to a church and be inside the four walls and think what's outside, can not come in here and you can not hurt," Crews said.
"Most of us are average Joe boys who hunt and fish and watch out for others," he added. "We have managers, farmers, teachers in our security team."
Congregants attend a church service at Ava Assembly of God. Whitney Curtis / for Good King News
The men – there are no women in the team – work in teams of three every Sunday morning and stick to a schedule that is sent by e-mail every six weeks. Two men are stationed near the main entrance of the church, doubled as greetings that shake hands when the congregation enters. A third is at the front of the church, near the predecessor. On Wednesdays evenings there is an armed volunteer for prayer groups for teens and adults.
"Fifty years ago, you could say that no guns should be allowed in the church, but times have changed," said Trampus Taylor, 49, the police chief in Sparta, Missouri, who started the Ava Assembly of God security team. . "Things are shooting everywhere."
Trampus Taylor, left, greets congregants at Ava Assembly of God. Whitney Curtis / for Good King News
Boyd, the pastor at Ava Assembly of God, said that voluntary security teams are economically justified for churches such as his, who can not afford to hire professional guards or outside officers.
"Without volunteers, it would be difficult in our environment to be able to pay the kind of security we have every week," Boyd said. "We are very well covered, and it brings us great peace."
Churches are ducks & # 39;
The Ava Assembly of God security team performs regular exercises, including tactical rifle training under the guidance of Taylor, a certified law enforcement instructor for Missouri.
Next month, the team participates in simulation training led by Ozark Shoot, a security group that specializes in training church security teams. The company charges churches $ 400 to $ 1,000 for simulation sessions using real Glocks adapted with lasers to demonstrate how to confront an active shooter and accurately target under pressure.
Michael Deans, who has been in law enforcement for 48 years, of which 10 years at the Houston police, started in 2017 with Ozark Shoot because he saw that there was an increasing need for churches to tackle situations that could lead to gunshots.
"The audience would be amazed by what is happening behind the scenes in churches – from domestic situations involving married couples, to stalking predecessors to possible kidnapping of children in custody," he said.
Chris Crews shows his holster HK45 USP pistol outside Ava Assembly of God. Whitney Curtis / for Good King News
Jimmy Meeks, a retired policeman and a minister, started his security training company, Sheepdog Seminars, in 2009 after observing a similar need.
"If your church can afford to hire a professional security team or professional guards, you should certainly do so," said Meeks, whose company offers seminars that analyze the safety of a church, particularly at the entrances and parking lots. "But many churches can hardly afford the electricity bills, they have to take these things into their own hands."
Meeks acknowledged that the idea of mixing arms with God is disturbing for some. But, he said, those who see no reason for rifles in churches in 2019 are in denial.
"Churches are ducks," Meeks said. They noted that houses of worship often have multiple entries and open-door policies that strive to accept everyone, including emotionally unstable ones.
& # 39; A wake-up call & # 39;
The decision to allow congregants to carry weapons can be fraught. At Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, the largest conservative synagogue in the United States, the Congregation debated this issue for years, said Jerrad Bloome, the president of the synagogue. Some were concerned that if women brought weapons into their wallets to services, children could reach them.
Bloome was torn up and said that he thought "firearms cause a problem rather than save you." But after the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, he said he understood the case better for armed congregations.
Beth Yeshurun ultimately decided not to formally encourage or forbid members to bring firearms to services. Bloome is aware of some congregants who arm themselves with the aim of protecting others. The synagogue, which has 1,800 families as members, also employs a team of professional armed security agents.
"I think Pittsburgh was a wake-up call for the Jewish community," said Bloome. "It's something that we knew could happen, but people usually thought:" It's a place of worship, it can not happen here. "Now we know it differently."
& # 39; Protect the herd & # 39;
The 14-year-old daughter of pastor Frank Pomeroy was one of the victims during the 2017 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Pomeroy said he felt safe in the church because he was carrying a gun and knew several church members who were doing well too. He believed that he and other armed members would be able to defend the church in the event of a shooting. But because there was no official schedule for armed congregations to follow, no one who traditionally brought a gun to church – including Pomeroy – was present on the day of the shooting.
"We thought we were prepared," said Pomeroy, "but we were not."
Since the shooting, the church has invested in cameras & radios, and has also implemented a carefully choreographed program of volunteers who carry weapons both publicly and openly during Sunday services.
"There is no scripture that shows me that we have to keep weapons out of the church," said Pomeroy. "There is a scripture that says we must protect the flock."