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Kansas City Churches Trade Open Doors For Tighter Security In An Era Of Mass Shootings

Kyle Palmer
Members of Northminster Presbyterian Church have been considering a new security system. From left, Pastor Scott Phillips, Connie Cole, Teri VanGilder, Sue Fine, Don Spencer

The members of Northminster Presbyterian Church, north of the river in Kansas City, Missouri, pride themselves on having open doors.

The church's website says, "All are welcome in this place."

A Boy Scout troop meets here, as do some neighborhood assocations in this hilly residential area off Antioch Road. Local people also regularly rent out space for birthday parties, baby showers, and class reunions.

"This place should be different," Pastor Scott Phillips says. "A place of sanctuary, a place of safety, a place of connection." 

But the talk among Northminster's leaders in recent weeks has been less about keeping doors open and more about making sure they're locked tight. Following a string of mass shootings at houses of worship around the U.S. and the world in recent years, Northminster, like a lot of area houses of worship, has started to get more serious about security. 

Northminster's governing body is considering buying a new security system with the capability of locking doors with an app. A Kansas City Police officer has been out to give the church an assessment of its vulnerabilities during a potential attack. And there have been the first, tentative suggestions -- once unthinkable -- that some members should carry concealed weapons to Sunday services. 

"It's very sad that we've come to this point," says Sue Fine, a long-time member of Northminster Presbyterian. "But it's a reality."

Drills and concealed weapons 

Earlier this month, several Northminster members attended an active shooter training geared towards houses of worship, one of a series of such seminars put on by the Kansas City Police Department this June.

"I saw this place in a whole new way. I found myself walking around, going into rooms, thinking, 'Now, how could I get out of here if something happened."

More than 100 people showed up from across the Northland that night. 

The attendees were presented with some discomfiting questions: which rooms in their builidings could be locked from the inside? Where were all the exits? How quickly could elderly members be moved to safety?

Teri VanGilder, Northminster's office adminsitrator who has attended the church since she was seven, says it was unsettling after the training coming back to the building she thought she knew so well.

"I saw this place in a whole new way. I found myself walking around, going into rooms, thinking, 'Now, how could I get out of here if something happened," she says.

Sue Fine is a former teacher and school principal, and remembered practicing lockdown drills with her students. She thinks Northminster should do the same thing at least two Sundays a year. 

"We need to have practice," she says. "Now, we have a lot of seniors here, so we're not going to crouch down on the floor with our hands on our heads, but we should be aware of what to do." 

Don Spencer, a retiree who's attended Northminster for decades, has broached the idea with Pastor Phillips of carrying a concealed gun on Sundays. Spencer has taken a concealed-carry course and says he and a handful of other members would be prepared to come to church armed. 

"My wife has encouraged me to, but I don't," he says with some resigation. "You don't think of churches being targeted, but I think it's something we need to face."

Phillips is not ready to go there yet. 

"I've walked into churches that have had armed guards, and it felt like, 'Wow, this is too much,'" he says. "But then I've walked into other churches and thought it feels too vulnerable. So..."  

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
"Flee, Fortify, Fight." Officer Jermaine Garth leads an active shooter training for several dozen leaders of Kansas City houses of worship.

"What's the average on Sundays?"

Kansas City Police held an active shooter training earlier this year at the request of a Northland mosque not far from Northminster, after 50 people were killed in a shooting at a mosque in New Zealand in March. 

Community Interaction Officer Bill Keeney helped lead that session and says it was so well-received, KCPD officials had the idea of expanding such traninings to houses of worship across Kansas City. 

"We are trying to get them to understand that the shootings that have happened, they're uncontrollable. But what can we do to possibly prevent the death and carnage that happens?" he says. 

They planned five sessions around the city, and one took place on a recent weekday afternoon at HJ's Community Center in Brookside. Nearly 40 people sat at round tables in a well-lit room as Officer Jermaine Garth of KCPD's tactical unit went through a series of slides displaying the latest FBI statisitics showing mass shootings and casualties from such incidents are on the rise. 

"Time is crucial," Garth said at one point. "These events typically take 10 minutes or less." 

He went over three steps people in an active shooter scenario can take to survive: "Flee, fortify, or fight." He then warned attendees it may take several minutes for officers to respond to a crisis following a 911 call. 

"On average, our officers can respond to an emergency in three to four minutes," Garth said. 

An attendee raised his hand: "What's the average on Sundays?"

Not new concerns for some

Many Jewish congregations have employed armed guards ever since a self-avowed neo-Nazi shot and killed three people at Jewish sites in Johnson County in 2014. This past fall, after 11 people were killed in a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, several metro Jewish congregations welcomed non-members to shabbat in a show of openness and unity. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
Garth told the crowd most active shooter scenarios are over in 10 minutes or less.

Likewise, black churches in Kansas City have long been on high alert. Several black church leaders attended the Brookside session. Some of them raised questions about whether their congregations could be targets because of their race. 

Garth, the officer leading the training, demurred. 

"It's dangerous to try to get into a head of an active shooter. They don't care about your race, creed, or gender. They just want to kill," he said. 

One person brought up the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 2015, in which a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners. 

Afterwards, Jerome Randolph, pastor at Gethsemane New Testament Baptist Church in south Kansas City, could only shake his head: "We know we're living in an evil world today. We should be focused on other things other than worrying about people bringing guns to church. It's pretty rough to take in."

But he, like several attendees, said he planned to call KCPD and ask them to do an on-site security assessment of his church in the coming weeks. 

"Not overwhelmed by fear"

In that regard, Northminster Presbyterian is ahead of many other churches that are only now starting to think seriously about their security. 

Pastor Phillips says the discussions his congregation has been having are necessary in this day and age, but he worries that the procedures and protocols that may be put in place could ultimately hurt the spirit of openness that has long defined Northminster. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
As a boy in Nebraska, Phillips says he attended a church "where the doors were always open."

"We're not being naive or assuming everything is going to be okay," he says. "The key is to be realistic but not overwhelmed by fear." 

He recalls growing up going to church in a small town in Nebraska, a place where "the doors were always open." 

He says he called his boyhood church recently to see if they had changed anything following the mass shootings in recent years. They're locking their doors now, too.  

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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