Father Ed Hislop became a Catholic priest 45 years ago. Back then, he said, the possibility of violence at a church “never entered my mind.”
To this day Hislop, currently the pastor at Blessed Trinity Catholic Community, says he’s never personally encountered any violence or threat at a church. But in recent years, churches, synagogues, temples and mosques have all been the site of high-profile mass shootings. In 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the FBI logged 7,175 hate crimes, 292 of which occurred in a place of worship.
The effort to prevent violence at these places drew more than 100 guests to Blessed Trinity Wednesday night for a forum sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, Speakers from the city, state and federal governments and the nonprofit Anti-Defamation League discussed how religious groups can prevent and respond to violent acts.
“We were contacted by the Department of Justice … and asked if we would be interested in it,” Hislop said. “Some of us in the Missoula community, the faith community, have been talking at various levels about working with some of the police agencies … to help us understand how to protect ourselves against violence.
“The primary motivation, of course, has been the violence that’s occurred in many houses of worship in our country in the last couple of years.” Within the United States, churches, mosques, synagogues and Sikh temples have all drawn arsonists and mass shooters in recent years.
Kendall Kosai, associate regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest region, shared Montana statistics at Wednesday’s event. There were 15 reported hate crimes in Montana in 2017 — down from 45 in 2015 — along with 12 “campus flyer-ing” incidents of hateful messages being shared on college campuses (Kosai and other experts have noted that these incidents are probably under-reported).
Kosai presented several strategies for religious communities to counter such events. The first involved creating a network for response and information-sharing — especially with local law enforcement. “Law enforcement is critical when we’re talking about security,” he said.
Kosai cited the the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle’s SAFE Washington program as an example of successful networking. After the October 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, “SAFE Washington alerted law enforcement within minutes of it (the story) breaking in the news. … Within two hours, there were visible patrols at every single synagogue in the state of Washington. This is the power of a network that you can create.”
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He also advised sharing a congregation’s calendar of religious holidays with law enforcement, to enable increased patrols on those dates; preparing for security risks and educating community members; and creating a “community resiliency plan” to respond and recover from an incident.
Randy Middlebrook, the Department of Homeland Security’s protective security advisor for Montana, and Burk Honzel, bureau chief for Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, discussed state and federal grants and services that congregations can access to bolster their security. They were joined in a panel discussion by Sgt. Colin Rose with the Missoula Police Department. More information on these resources can be found at https://www.fema.gov/faith-resources.
After their presentations, attendees from several denominations from as far away as Butte passed the microphone around and discussed threats they had received, and safety measures that they and their congregations had implemented. The presenters then joined the Missoula Police Department’s Rose in a panel discussion, which made clear the difficulties of creating a space both welcoming and secure.
Lutheran Pastor Jean Larson took particular issue with a handout’s recommendation to include “armed security personnel during peak attendance times.”
“I think it’s a terrible idea to bring … armed people into congregation worship on Sunday,” she said. Homeland Security’s Middlebrook made clear that each congregation should tailor its security plan to its unique needs, and said that any plan involving armed protection should be vetted by law enforcement and an attorney.
"I hope that a couple of things happen” after this event," Hislop said. “No. 1, that we become attentive to situations where there may be some potential for violence within a worship community, but also that we become attentive to values that we hold hold as a church.
“We don’t want this to become a fear-mongering kind of situation,” he continued. “We want this to be an open-ended discussion that continues to celebrate the diversity of the human family without any finger-pointing.”