ROCKVILLE – Music and laughter filled the chapel at Redland Baptist Church as a rambunctious group of teen-agers in jeans and sneakers gathered Wednesday for PreFix, the church’s weekly youth night.
Tunes from the three-member praise band echoed through the church as the youths, fresh from a 15-minute scavenger hunt, sang “We Come to Praise” and an upbeat version of “How Great Thou Art.”
None of the dozen or so teens appeared concerned that, at a youth event exactly a week earlier at a Fort Worth, Texas, church, a gunman opened fire, killing seven before killing himself.
“I don’t really feel threatened,” said Amelia Alvarado, 16. “Nothing that big happens here. I don’t feel in danger at all.”
But in the wake of the Sept. 15 shooting spree by Larry Gene Ashbrook at Fort Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist Church, Maryland ministers and worshipers are grappling with the question of what security measures are appropriate in a house of God.
Churches are traditionally open houses, but more and more Baptist churches are taking steps to secure their buildings, said a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn.
“It’s going to be very difficult for our people to do this,” said the Rev. Herb Hollinger of the Baptist Convention. “It’s not what we want, it’s not what we stand for.”
Ron Chaney, director of the communications center for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, agreed that security measures in churches pose a conflict.
“On the one hand, you want to be accessible,” Chaney said. “At the same time, making yourself accessible leaves you vulnerable.
“[Churches] want to assure people who come to church that they’re safe while they’re there,” he said.
Nationally known churches are most likely to contract outside security services and those that televise their services may be most susceptible to attack, said the Rev. John Draper, director of missions for the Baltimore Baptist Association.
He said ushers and deacons should be trained on how to observe and intervene when they notice irregular behavior. In larger churches, ushers should use walkie-talkies, Draper said.
But most ministers said they trust God to provide their security.
“If somebody came in and did something like that, we’d put it in the Lord’s hands,” said Chuck Burke, a minister at Independent Baptist Church in Laurel.
Berwyn Baptist Church plans to install a camera and intercom at the front door, but that is largely out of concern for children who attend the Berwyn Baptist School there during the week, said the Rev. Dennis Richards. Church leaders want to be able to monitor who enters the church, he said.
“Right now, we couldn’t do anything if the person [who entered] had ill intent,” Richards said. “You just don’t know. A lot of people come to the church that we don’t necessarily know.”
Richards said the church planned its security measures before the Texas shooting took place.
The Rev. Richard Chavez, of the Burtonsville Baptist Church, said he was “saddened” by the shooting, but does not plan on adding any more safety features for his church. It already screens people who work with children and the doors are locked when nobody is in the building, he said.
“That’s a sad commentary, but that’s what we have to do,” he said. “We have a responsibility to protect those who have entrusted us with their children. [But] if you’ve got somebody that wants to kill me or you, they’re going to get you. I’m not going to live my life paranoid.”
Back at Redland, the shooting hits closer to home.
Redland member Chuck Holton was in choir practice Sept. 15 when his sister called and told him of the shooting at Wedgwood, where his father is a minister. He later learned that Ashbrook shot twice at his father, the Rev. Mike Holton, but missed.
The elder Holton returned to his office and dialed 911. He escaped from the shooting unharmed.
“Yes we are concerned about safety and security in church, but no, we’re not going to extensive measures to prevent something like this from happening,” Chuck Holton said.
“You can’t prevent something like this. What you have to do is minimize your exposure,” he said.
Redland church member Sherrie Riggs had just come home from the Sept. 15 PreFix meeting when she learned of the shooting that night at Wedgwood’s “See You at the Pole” youth prayer rally. Riggs, who works with Redland’s teen group, was struck by the similarities between the two youth events.
“We have a very similar situation,” said Riggs, office manager of Montgomery Baptist Association. “We don’t know every single parent [that comes in]. We do have people coming into our midst that we don’t really know.”
Burke, of Independent Baptist Church, takes a more spiritual approach.
“If God allows that to happen, we’ll accept it. We may not like it, but we’ll accept it,” he said.