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With the threat of violence looming, are sanctuaries still a place of peace?

POSTED: November 9, 2017 8:19 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Religious leaders discuss how to reclaim their sanctuary after an act of violence.

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The Rev. Erik Richtsteig was leading Mass when a shooter entered his sanctuary June 16, 2013. He'll never forget the gunshot that followed, which forever changed his relationship to his church.

"It took the innocence away," said the Rev. Richtsteig, pastor of St. James the Just Catholic Church in Ogden, Utah. There's still a chip in the floor from the bullet.

Shootings in houses of worship like the Nov. 5 attack at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, not only kill or injure countless worshippers, they also threaten the very nature of religious sanctuaries, turning a place of peace into a place of fear, faith leaders said.

"When I saw what had happened (in Texas), my first instinct was to think, 'What if that happened in my own church?'" said Jamie Aten, who has overseen research into mass shootings as executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.

This shift toward anxiety and suspicion undermines the work houses of worship do in the world. Once a place of welcome and escape, drawing people away from busy lives and terrorizing events, they become a reminder of all that can go wrong, the Rev. Richtsteig said.

"Still today, when someone comes into the church during Mass, I look up and think, 'What are they doing?'" he said.

But the best response to violence is to draw closer to God, which involves reclaiming the space an attacker violated, Aten said. Although marred by shootings and bomb threats, sanctuaries remain a source of comfort to the people gathered there.

"Recovery takes place in community. It's by coming together that we really express the love of God to those who are hurting in times of tragedy," he said.

Fear, then faith

For the Rev. Kristen Provost-Switzer, each new act of gun violence is an unwelcome reminder of her community's pain. She serves Newtown Congregational Church in Newtown, Connecticut, the city where 26 children and adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 12, 2012.

"Unfortunately in Newtown, we're used to reacting to tragic events," she said.

However, Sunday's shooting in Texas took on "a whole other dimension of trauma" because of the scene of the crime, she added. The people in the pews in Sutherland Springs were easy targets, focused on worshipping God instead of watching out for a man with a gun.

"My first instinct was to not set foot in a church again after that happened," the Rev. Provost-Switzer said.

But she was back in her sanctuary already Monday night, joining around 50 Newtown community members to pray for gun violence victims and find hope in God. Newtown residents' past experiences with tragedy taught them to heal together instead of trying to go it alone.

"We tried to entertain the idea that despair is not the path that God has chosen for us," the Rev. Provost-Switzer said.

Faith communities are an important resource in the wake of mass shootings, grounding people who feel threatened by chaos and danger, Aten said.

His organization has led research into recent shootings in Dallas, Orlando and Roseburg, Oregon, concluding that spiritual ties help protect people from the mental health issues that often follow gun violence.

"My hope is that we continue to push through fear and continue to gather. It's through gathering that healing can really happen," Aten said.

The Rev. Richtsteig's congregation in Ogden worshipped again in their sanctuary before the blood was cleaned up. The Catholic Church mandates that all masses must be completed, so they worshipped as Ogden police officers patiently waited.

This willingness to move on together did not mean that there wasn't great pain, the Rev. Richtsteig said. He helped many of his congregants receive counseling in the months after Charles Jennings Jr. shot his father-in-law, James Evan, who survived the attack.

Remaining in the sanctuary in the hours after the shooting represented a triumph over evil, he added.

"There's no place, not your home, place of work or school, that's immune from tragedy," he said. "You have to take what happens and deal with it."

Seeking perspective

In the wake of a violent attack like this past weekend's shooting, which left at least 26 people dead and about 20 injured, religious leaders ponder security plans, hiring safety officers or inviting parishioners to bring their guns to services, as Religion News Service reported.

These policy shifts provide comfort during a stressful time, but they also threaten the Bible's call to welcome the stranger, said the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas, associate rector at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"The gut response most people have is one of fear. They think, 'We've got to protect ourselves. We need security. We need to buy a gun,'" she said. "In fact, our faith tells us to do the opposite of those things: to live without fear."

To feel safe, people of faith need to find perspective, and that often comes from prayer, Aten said.

"Prayer is extremely important. It helps us recenter with God's will and … hear each other's needs and pains," he said.

In the case of the Texas attack, perspective also comes from data on church shootings. Nearly 3 in 4 offenders in church attacks have some personal connection to the place, whether because they once attended or know family members who do, CNN reported, drawing on recent crime research.

"Most attacks at houses of worship aren't really about religion," the article noted. "And even with the steady rise of shootings and hate crimes, spiritual sanctuaries remain among the more secure spots to spend a Sunday morning."

The Sutherland Springs shooter may have been in search of his mother-in-law, who is a parishioner at First Baptist Church but wasn't in attendance on Sunday, said Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Safety, during a Nov. 6 news conference.

"This was not racially motivated. It wasn't over religious beliefs," he said. "There was a domestic situation going on with the family and in-laws."

In other words, Christian churches are more vulnerable to congregation-related attacks than random acts of violence. That should worry religious leaders, but not keep them from fulfilling their call to keep the sanctuary doors open to everyone, the Rev. Thomas said.

"If I'm doing pastoral counseling and a woman comes to me who has been in a kind of abusive situation, I make sure that I'm not the only one who knows that," she said.

Synagogues and mosques face more anonymous bomb threats and shootings, and yet they, too, find a way to stay connected to their communities, she added.

For houses of worship that do employ security officers, whether all the time or for high-profile holidays, it is possible to remain a sacred space, said Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer for Washington National Cathedral, a popular tourist destination in Washington, D.C.

"The people who come to worship here expect to see more security than you would at an average parish church," he said. "On one hand, it can be a little jarring, but it's also comforting to a lot of folks."

Reclaiming peace

In the Catholic Church, there's a formal theological response to a sanctuary that's been desecrated. Priests lead a liturgy for the reconciliation of the church, repeating the same prayers that have brought comfort to victims for centuries, the Rev. Richtsteig said.

The service "acknowledges that a place that was supposed to be a place of peace has been violated. We pray that God will protect us," he said.

Other faith communities have more spontaneous ways to restore peace to their place of worship. This Sunday, Newtown Congregational Church will do whatever makes their souls feel good, the Rev. Provost-Switzer said.

"We're ditching our original plans and working to reclaim our sanctuary as a safe and hopeful space," she said.

People of faith are trained to find meaning in suffering, said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. They won't back down in the face of fear.

"People who think Christians are going to be too terrorized to go to church just don't understand why we go in the first place. I think this Sunday you will see churches of various denominations standing in solidarity with Sutherland Springs," he said.

Moore added, "There won't be a dispersing, but a uniting."
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