Sacramento faith leaders prepare congregants to cope with Texas church killings

Bayside Church prays for Texas shooting victims

Bayside Church Senior Pastor Andrew McCourt shares the church's response to Sunday's church killings in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
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Bayside Church Senior Pastor Andrew McCourt shares the church's response to Sunday's church killings in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

A day after a gunman killed 26 worshipers at a small Baptist church in Texas, Sacramento religious leaders said Monday they want to help their congregants persevere without fear.

Large churches are already well-equipped with security measures to protect their flocks, but smaller congregations among the region’s 600 places of worship can rely only on their faith in God and humanity to protect them.

Two of the largest churches in the region – Bayside Church and Capital Christian Center – have security teams on site.

Capital Christian Pastor Rick Cole Jr. said he will inform congregants Sunday about their own internal security force led by a former Sacramento Police Department officer and others connected by ear pieces.

“We’re going to talk about having a uniformed police officer on campus as a visual deterrent,” Cole said. “We seem to have an escalating environment of division and violence. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow so we pray for our creator to bring peace to our people.”

Bayside has safety teams of retired and active law enforcement officers, said Senior Pastor Andrew McCourt. The congregation includes up to 18,000 worshipers across five campuses in the region.

“Romans 12:21 says we are not to be overcome by evil, but we will overcome evil with good,” McCourt said. “In a world we know is broken, I see much hope coming from the local church. People want to rally together, whether it’s our response to Hurricane Harvey or the Santa Rosa fires.”

McCourt said his father, a police officer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was shot in the line of duty “during a time of grave conflict, thank God he survived. We are never nervous before service, but always cautious,” he said. “Our safety teams are willing to advise any smaller church that would like help on how to install cameras or provide security.”

Cole, who leads a conservative congregation, said the Texas shooting affirmed his support of “common sense reforms on the rules and procedures for obtaining guns and what kind of guns without taking away the right of our citizens to own a gun. To do nothing doesn’t make sense to me and if we can stop one shooter, it’s worth it.”

The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, which has a million parishioners spread across 103 churches, is grappling with how to protect them, particularly in small rural churches similar to the one in Sutherland Springs, Texas, said Auxiliary Bishop Myron Cotta.

While the downtown Cathedral has security guards checking people at the front door, and larger churches may have installed security cameras and hired guards, “smaller churches will have to train their users to be more alert,” Cotta said. “We will not be encouraging people with concealed gun permits to bring guns to church, but somebody could have a permit and we would never know it.”

For now, “individual churches will have to make their own decisions,” he said.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church Rev. Rod Davis, a retired state appellate judge, said he’s actually more concerned “about an overreaction to this incident than I am of some concrete risk of someone walking into our parish and opening fire.”

St. Michael’s is home to a large elementary school, “and the thought that some overreaction would lead to parishioners bringing firearms to a school site is frightening and disturbing,” Davis said. “As a Christian, one of the non-negotiables is to be welcoming to strangers and those in need and to create any sort of environment that is so secure it is unwelcoming is inconsistent with our theology.”

Davis said that it seems people have grown more divisive when “society and certainly Christian communities need to focus on loving our neighbor and trying to understand them.”

Metwalli Amer, founder of SALAM Islamic Center near American River College, said Sacramento may be less susceptible to a Texas-style incident because interfaith leaders have worked hard to promote “empathy, justice, acceptance and hope to make Sacramento a better, safer place to live.”

But other clerics say the fear of someone violent invading their place of worship is very real.

“We just installed security cameras at Tarbiya House, our Islamic center in Roseville,” said Imam M.A. Azeez. “You don’t know what kind of insanity will come from what direction.”

Azeez doesn’t think bringing guns into any place of worship is the answer, but “I understand a very small percentage of people have concealed weapons permits, including some of our parishioners.”

Azeez, who ministers to about 450 people, said he wishes he could afford to have a security team.

“With us it’s even scarier because when we pray we are disconnected from the world, our foreheads are touching the ground thinking of God,” Azeez said. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do to prevent it short of having armed people who stand there and do not pray.”

What makes the Texas church massacre so frightening, Azeez said, “is we’re used to evil that can be explained, like the mafia, terrorists, al-Qaida or ISIS, versus a guy who goes into the church and kills people and we don’t know why or if we can prevent these acts.”

Laura Sussman contributed to this story. Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini