Two years ago, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was convicted of 33 federal hate crime charges in federal court in 2016 and now is on death row.
Roof’s mass shooting, however, is not the only tragedy that has occurred in a U.S. church. People have been killed in churches in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Louisiana, and Missouri, among other places.
Such tragedies have not been lost on some churchgoers, who are utilizing their skills and teaming with law enforcement to bring safety training seminars to spiritual leaders throughout Central Florida. One such program, titled “Worshipping in Safety,” was held recently at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cocoa.
The program was designed to help members of parishes in the Diocese of Central Florida be prepared to actively prevent and take action in emergencies such as active shooters, fires, and hurricanes, among other events.
“The need for awareness of a wide variety of issues is important,” said Dr. Robin Reed, one of the developers of the training seminar and a clinical psychologist for the VA in Central Florida. “We cannot keep our heads in the sand about this. There will be emergencies, and we need to be prepared for these – clergy, lay people, entire congregations – to help our people stay safe.”
The “Worshipping in Safety” program was open to lay people, vestry members and clergy, but drew mostly lay members from churches in the Diocese of Central Florida, Reed said. The event was hosted by St. Mark’s Rector Gary Jackson and was the latest program to be held in Central Florida.
Reed said Dr. Sharon Jones, a co-developer of the program, and Melbourne Police Department Lt. Cheryl Trainer previously offered this program at a Baptist church in Orlando. Additionally, a workshop was held at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Longwood in November 2016.
Jones, who is executive director of Everyone’s Counseling Center, with offices throughout Central Florida, said the safety program was first presented almost two years ago at Holy Trinity Episcopal in Melbourne and was a huge success.
“An ecumenical gathering of about 120 people attended from several towns throughout the coastal area,” said Jones, who also works as a psychological consultant for the Melbourne Police Department. “The number was surprising since advertisement was through word of mouth in the community and through diocesan message.”
Jones and Trainer, who also were presenters at the latest event, kept things interesting by discussing the importance of being aware and prepared to handle natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and fires, and human disasters such as domestic violence, medical emergencies and active shooters, Reed reported.
“This presentation was developed based on a FEMA document that was published in August 2014 focusing on communities of worship,” Jones said. “Since there had been a number of tragedies in churches, I approached the Melbourne Police Department. It was our belief that it was probable that few people would actually read and disseminate the information from the document, so we decided as a service to our community that we’d produce something that was both useful and applicable.”
Reed, who is a postulant in the Diocese of Central Florida, said the program presented a number of key suggestions to help parish members in times of emergencies:
- Each parish should take proactive steps to be involved in the safety of its congregation.
- Each parish should work collaboratively with local law enforcement, including inviting law officers to tour its church campus and gain insight from the parish on how to keep areas safer with lighting, landscaping and more.
- Provide local law enforcement with a floor plan of each building, detailing rooms, spaces, entrances, exits and more.
- Invite law enforcement to hold a training exercise on property for a fuller understanding of the area.
Reed said Trainer herself shared law enforcement’s perspective on how best to prepare and train parishioners to respond to emergencies. “Lt. Trainer is a warm, approachable officer,” Reed said. “She offered suggestions about working with law enforcement and preparing.”
The training program has been so well-received that Reed said Canon Tim Nunez of the Diocese of Central Florida is planning to offer future seminars for each of the diocese’s deaneries this fall.
“Law enforcement folks have much to teach us about safety on our property and in our congregation,” Reed said.
Reed has taken it a step further at her church, Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Longwood, where members are forming a safety board with members from both the church and nearby Sweetwater Episcopal Academy, a sister school which shares the church’s 10-acre campus.
“I am hopeful that we might be able to further educate folks across the diocese with a video, further trainings, and/or an article on specific steps taken to develop and operate the safety board,” she said.