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How Safe is Your Place of Worship?

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A few bouquets of flowers rest under a tree at the edge of the block of the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Eleven people were killed and six others injured in a shooting during services there Oct. 27, 2018. Photo: AP

Many Americans may be wondering what security measures are in place at their place of worship after 11 people were killed in Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

President Donald Trump also alluded to this question when he said “the results would have been far better” if the Tree of Life congregation had armed guards or members.

According to news reports, the Tree of Life synagogue did not have armed guards present at the time of the shooting. Many community leaders rebuked Trump’s statements and argued that increasing armed security was not the solution.

We are a sociologist and criminologist who in 2015 conducted a national study of religious congregations’ experiences with, fears of and preparations for crime.

Our study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, featured a survey of over 1,300 places of worship and in-depth interviews with more than 50 congregational leaders.

We asked each leader – individuals with significant knowledge of the congregation’s operations – about the congregation’s history of crime, its security measures, the individual’s assessment of future crime risk and fears, and a variety of questions about the congregation’s operations and neighborhood.

While the Tree of Life synagogue was not part of our study, the results of this work may hold useful insights for conversations about crime and security in places of worship. Here’s what we found.

Threats and fear

Crimes, most commonly vandalism and theft, were committed at about 40 percent of congregations in the year prior to the survey. This overall percentage was not significantly different across religious traditions.

When we dug deeper, though, we found that synagogues and mosques deal with crime-related problems that are much different than the average church.

Our survey found, for instance, that synagogues and mosques were three times more likely than congregations overall to have received an explicit threat in the prior year.

Respondents also reported significantly greater fear that congregants would be assaulted or murdered on the congregation’s property. This helps explain another pattern we found: Jewish and Muslim congregations are in many ways far ahead of congregations representing other religious traditions when it comes to thinking about and implementing security measures.

Security measures

The survey showed that 40 percent of congregations have in place at least four of the 18 security measures asked about in our survey. About 43 percent of congregations have an alarm system, 28 percent use security cameras, and 25 percent have taken steps to restrict the number of entries into their buildings.

Our interviews found that most places of worship have a hard time implementing security. Some of this is simply not enough money. Larger and wealthier congregations tend to have more security in place.

Beyond resources, our interviews consistently found that places of worship view security measures as a potential threat to their mission of creating a sacred space that is open to their communities.

However, our survey also found that synagogues and mosques were much more likely than the average congregation to have security cameras, restricted entry points, security guards and other security measures. For example, only 17 percent of all the congregations in our survey reported any use of security guards, whether full-time, part-time or for special events. This compares to just over 54 percent of synagogues and 28 percent of mosques. Synagogues are also more likely to have communicated with their local police.

Beyond the statistics, our in-depth interviews with leaders of congregations found that synagogues and mosques tend to put a great deal of thought into security. For synagogues in particular, our interviews found that local organizations are effective at sharing information and resources about security threats and strategies – for example, the Jewish Community Relations Councils.

Future steps

The U.S. must find ways to address the threats and violence against synagogues, mosques and other places of worship. In the meantime, congregations can evaluate their security risks and precautions.

The sparse resources of most congregations present some limitations, but there are steps they can take at little or no cost. For instance, congregations can assess whether entry points should be restricted to increase the ability of staff and members to observe who enters the building.

Congregations are not alone in these efforts. Many local police departments will conduct a security assessment for specific congregations or offer a workshop for multiple congregations. Furthermore, many congregations have members who have relevant skills, from installing new locks to setting up security cameras. Simply starting a conversation within your community can help your congregation identify these resources.The Conversation

Christopher P. Scheitle, Assistant Professor of Sociology, West Virginia University and Jeffery T. Ulmer, Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Prosecutors Unearthed This Catholic Abuse Case — How Many Other Scandals Stay Buried?

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It’s been a tough month for American Catholics.

Court documents released in mid-August revealed more than 1,000 allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania over the last seven decades. Given the length of time that has passed, new criminal charges are unlikely for most of the allegations, and the alleged behavior ranges from inappropriately communicating with a minor to rape and sexual assault.

Additionally, Pope Francis has ordered an investigation into allegations of misconduct in West Virginia’s Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, upon Bishop Michael Bransfield’s resignation. Victims are also now sharing stories about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a previous archbishop of Washington, D.C., who resigned in July due to allegations against him.

Victims and their advocates say the Pennsylvania report is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are likely thousands more victims of abuse who have never come forward or whose records are lost. Sadly, my own experience tells me that they are most likely right.

I was raised Catholic in Appalachian Ohio, in a small town of 10,000 called Ironton. Church is a centerpiece of life in my small hometown, an essential aspect of one’s identity. I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten until graduation. I saw the celebrity-like status that priests often enjoy among their parishioners. If the rest of Catholic America is anything like my hometown, it’s an atmosphere ripe for abuse.

I was lucky, though. I was active in the church growing up and got to know my pastor through my childhood and teenage years fairly well. There were never any rumors or accusations against him or any evidence of inappropriate behavior, as far as I know. As an altar server from ages 10 to 18 and Eucharistic minister from ages 17 to 20, I spent a lot of time alone with him and in the presence of other young boys and girls—and he never so much as looked at us inappropriately.

But he still commanded an unhealthy position, socially. It was a very conservative town, county and region of the country. It’s what is now condescendingly referred to as “Trump country.”

Religion—almost exclusively Christianity—is the tie that binds the community together. I didn’t meet any non-Christians until I attended a college in southern West Virginia, and even then it was only a handful. Very few dared to criticize their church or its dogma. To ask questions was to risk scorn and ridicule.

Because of this, people clamored for the attention and company of our pastor. He got invited to far more parties than he had time to attend. If he did show up, his presence was almost like a status symbol, even if you didn’t know him that well. It was a really big deal for both teachers and students when he would visit a class in the schools. Everyone wanted to sit next to him at sporting events.

There were several families of which he was considered a de facto member. Parishioners would feel slighted that he seemed to prefer their company more than others. When he broke the news that he was being transferred to another parish after 30 years, many acted as if he had announced he only had a month to live.

You can see how someone with less integrity or malicious intent could exploit this kind of atmosphere. Combine this with a destructive culture of machismo where even the slightest intimate contact (wanted or unwanted) with someone of the same sex would be a source of shame for young boys, and you’re left with a set of perverse incentives that discourages speaking up about abuse or inappropriate behavior. Throughout my adolescence, calling someone gay was one of the worst insults you could throw at them. Questions about sexuality could be a source of severe shame.

My father, who attended the same high school that I did only three decades prior, tells a story of showering after gym class, when one of the parish priests, now long-dead, unexpectedly jumped in the shower with him. Though they were alone, the priest (who was also the gym teacher) did not touch him, but he made my father feel leery and uncomfortable. Dad quickly got out of the shower.

I think it’s reasonable to assume the priest was there to do more than simply wash himself off. Yet my father never raised this issue with the school’s administration, the parish, or even his parents. Given the circumstances, the likelihood of them believing him was probably low. It’s impossible to know how many other stories there are like this that no one ever talked about, or ever will.

There most certainly are other communities in the U.S. and around the world with similar dynamics to my hometown. As a result, there are likely thousands of other stories of abuse that were buried, intentionally and not. The revelations in Pennsylvania will not be the last skeletons found in the Church’s closet.

Jerrod A. Laber is a DC-based writer and journalist, and a contributor for Young Voices. He grew up in southeastern Ohio and is an alumnus of Marshall University. His work has appeared in The National Interest, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Washington Examiner, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.

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Appalachia

Why Americans Have Long Been Fascinated by Gunfighting Preachers

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The mass shooting on June 28 in Annapolis, MD, has renewed familiar concerns about America’s gun culture and gun policies.

Yet this was not the only June shooting to make national headlines.

Fox News and The Washington Post reported an earlier story involving the quick-thinking actions of a church leader who also happened to be a trained emergency responder. Spotting an armed carjacker exiting a Walmart Supercenter, in Oakville, WA, the gun-owning pastor took pursuit – then shot and killed the man in the parking lot.

Compared to the Annapolis shooting, the Walmart incident offers a far more convenient narrative for gun-rights activists. At the same time, it highlights the intersection between America’s gun culture and its religious cultures.

In this, the event is hardly unique. As I’ve found in my research for a study of “Outlaw Preachers and Profane Prophets,” the image of the gun-toting preacher has recurred with remarkable persistence in U.S. history and culture.

‘With a Bible and a gun’

The Walmart shooting joins a long tradition of stories about well-armed American preachers – both real and fictional – who seem to embody national attitudes toward guns and religion, violence and justice.

Just picture Jesse Custer, the protagonist of the popular AMC TV series “Preacher.” One typical episode finds Jesse, in his preacher’s collar, firing round after round from a semiautomatic rifle to protect his little Texas church from the malevolent forces that threaten it.

On rock band U2’s 1993 song “The Wanderer,” originally titled “The Preacher,” singer Johnny Cash summons another version of this resonant archetype – that of the preacher who journeys forth with God on his side, armed with the Book of Life in one hand and an instrument of death in the other:

I went out walking
with a Bible and a gun …

‘The Wanderer’

It’s telling that the song’s composer, Bono, should have written “The Wanderer” specifically for Johnny Cash. Growing up in Dublin, Ireland, Bono had experienced enough of “Bibles and guns” during the decadeslong clashes between (mostly Catholic) Irish nationalists and (mostly Protestant) British loyalists. And Bono ordinarily sings his own lyrics.

In this case, though, it’s as if the Bible-and-a-gun theme required an American icon to sing it. But why should that be so?

A Christian country

One answer is suggested by two notable features of U.S. culture. First, this remains a remarkably Christian country. It has the largest Christian population in the world, with some 70 to 83 percent of Americans identifying as Christian.

Second, the U.S. has a uniquely robust gun culture, as well as the world’s highest rates of gun ownership and extraordinary levels of gun violence.

Put these national characteristics together – the religion and the guns – and it’s not hard to see the appeal of figures, both real and fictional, that combine the two.

Consider the real-life example of the “pistol-packing pastor” – a Pentecostal preacher, named James McAbee, from Beaumont, Texas. McAbee has earned a reputation for offering firearm training in his own church.

Other such examples are not hard to find in American history. Back in the early 1900s, there was the Reverend J. Frank Norris, one of the country’s most popular preachers, who was widely known as “the pistol-toting divine.” He also once fatally shot an unarmed man during an argument, according to historian Barry Hankins.

Norris pleaded self-defense and was acquitted. Few would call his actions heroic, yet they seem only to have increased his appeal for his many fans.

These examples illustrate the extent to which, historically, many Americans have not only tolerated but celebrated the conjunction of preachers and firearms. But this is hardly the full story.

My research into the cultural representations of gun-slinging ministers suggests that such figures appeal to Americans’ interest in vigilante justice – in the capacity of a lone hero to save the rest of us when our institutions fail to.

Righteousness and retribution

The attractions of such vigilante justice help to explain the popularity of Westerns, especially those – like the classic 1953 film “Shane” – in which a lone horseman rides into town, has a shootout or two, and then rides off heroically into the sunset.

Country singer Willie Nelson combined that popular narrative with the figure of the preacher in his hugely successful 1975 music album “Red Headed Stranger.” That album tells the story of a man, called only “the preacher,” who ultimately shoots and kills his unfaithful wife and her lover.

We may not like that turn of events, but the album itself presents the preacher’s actions as justified, even heroic: a fantasy of righteous retribution.

In the 1985 Western “Pale Rider,” Clint Eastwood plays another character known only as “the Preacher.” Like Nelson’s album, this film marries a classic Western scenario to the weaponized preacher theme. In the mold of other Western heroes, Eastwood’s character rides into a small town from parts unknown and rescues a rural community from the malevolent forces that threaten it.

Clint Eastwood in ‘Dirty Harry,’ a 1971 American crime thriller. Paul Townsend, CC BY-NC-SA

Watching Eastwood’s preacher at work, audiences can enjoy some of the same pleasures provided by Eastwood’s other famous vigilante character, Dirty Harry: a ruthlessly effective police officer whose methods often run afoul of what’s strictly legal. But with “Pale Rider,” viewers enjoy the additional thrill of watching a “man of God” take down the bad guys – with the aid of his trusty six-shooter.

Where other vigilantes might appeal to their own, individual codes of justice, the preacher figure carries the authority to discharge God’s justice. His vengeance carries always the suggestion that it’s divinely inspired.

The avenging preacher

The idea of the gun-toting preacher thus showcases the power of individual self-assertion, while also often emphasizing the importance of protecting and preserving a wider community.

It also resonates with specific features of American religious life today. These include public debates among pastors over the appropriateness of concealed carry in the pulpit and of “open-carry celebrations” at church – not to mention the NRA’s contention that only “a good guy with a gun” can stop a bad guy with one.

The ConversationWith a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, the avenging preacher confirms the view that true justice cannot be enforced by institutions alone – and that God is on the side of those who would take the law into their own hands when necessary.

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Appalachia

Homecoming: Vowing ‘I Do’ to a Rural Place

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Annual church homecomings help us fulfill our need to belong and to be rooted.

Church leaders are busy preparing for Homecoming, which is nearly upon us. Homecoming is the largest Sunday of the year, when scores of visitors and returning family will gather at the New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Pulaski County, Virginia. We will worship together and then, weather permitting, enjoy an elaborate potluck meal on the church grounds under the shade of the oak trees, right next to the cemetery. Next year this church will celebrate its 250th anniversary; founded in 1769, it is the oldest Protestant church west of the Allegheny Mountains.   

There are such a wide variety of meanings and connotations that people have for the word “home.” For many that will gather for this church reunion, home is a tangible, down-to-earth place, such as a farmhouse where multiple generations have lived. Yet home is also a near mystical experience connecting people and a particular place to a communion of saints long since passed.   

Many years ago, I was assigned as a mentor to a young, first-year pastor in a neighboring town. He resisted the whole concept of a homecoming service in his new rural congregation because he thought it was pure sentimentality. He had grown up in a new suburb, where for his family, home was simply a place a person hung their hat. To his credit he stayed around his first church long enough to learn what the people he was serving thought about home and what it meant to them. He began to see that a homecoming service was not a selfish, nostalgic display of emotions. A good homecoming service is more like a renewal of marital vows, not between spouses, but between a people and a place. In this sense home is the web of commitments in a person’s life. 

In France during the late 1930’s a young woman began to articulate an insightful description for why Europe had descended into such chaos and violence. Simone Weil was a political activist and mystic who thought that her own French people as well as the enemy German people were both suffering from a similar problem. A growing industrial economy had resulted in undermining people’s commitments to building the necessary ties for the well-being of communities. In 1943 Simone Weil wrote her best-known book, The Need for Roots, and the English poet, T.S. Eliot, wrote the forward. In this book she wrote these words which still have important resonance for today.    

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his (sic) real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”

What Weil was getting at in a philosophical way is something that I see embodied in people’s lives in very practical ways all the time. The people who feel at home in a place are the people who have taken on a range of responsibilities in those places. If you want to belong to a place, feel at home in it, and grow roots there, the only way to accomplish this is by giving much of yourself, time, abilities, and resources to building up that community. 

I see people finding new ways to build communities of belonging all the time. Let me tell you about a friend who moved home to Randolph County, West Virginia, this past January.  Rich Cardot is a Presbyterian minister with whom I was in seminary, too long ago now.  He is the only ministerial colleague I know who has moved home. I mean really home, to living on the family property that George Washington land granted to his ancestors in 1789.  Rich is sleeping in the same bedroom and bed in which his grandfather slept when Rich was a kid.  He and his wife, Amy, raised their children in other places in Virginia and West Virginia.  Now that their youngest is out of the nest, Rich is experiencing his own homecoming.

Rich describes the rewards of moving home in ways that I have often heard others describe.  Closer connections to family and place are deeply fulfilling.  Rich added that being with friends he has known all his life since childhood has been its own reward.  Pastors who live in rural communities know what a true and rare blessing it is to have friends with whom you do not have to be “on” as pastor.

Yet rewards of homecoming come with responsibilities as well. In fact, home and responsibilities are related. Rich is serving four congregations, tending the flocks of these churches, and also reaching out to the needs of the rural communities in which these churches reside.  You might catch him at one of his churches, or at the schools, or working with the Lion’s Club or  somewhere else in the community.  When I called him on his cell phone, he was at the hospital, but this time not for a parishioner.  His mother is being treated for cancer.  Three months after moving home, his mother was diagnosed.  While this was sadly unexpected, Rich is grateful to be near and able to support his mother and father at a difficult time.  The web of commitments and relationships for Rich in Randolph County, West Virginia, deepens his own experience of home and also nurtures belonging in his family, parishioners and neighbors.

This Homecoming, I am left pondering those words from Simone Weil, written during one of the most catastrophic times in her nation’s history:

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”

Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.  

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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