Wednesday morning, July 10th someone started two small fires inside Providence Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC. As of this writing fire officials are calling it arson and an investigation continues. The damage was small in economic cost; probably less than $100,000. The damage in emotional cost is probably significant as a house of worship with deep meaning for many people was violated.
This fire is of concern to me for two reasons. First, my family were members of this church some years ago when Henry Crouch as pastor. We still love this church and on certain days wish we still lived in Charlotte and could attend this church.
Second, this happened during a week when violence in and to congregations had my attention. It was first stimulated when I noticed the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] with the US government had released a manual entitled, “Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship”. This manual is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/developing_eops_for_houses_of_worship_final.pdf.
While a good bit of this manual is simply about having a plan rather than responding to emergencies with chaos, it does drill down into very helpful subjects for congregations. It identifies three major types of threats or hazards—natural hazards, technological hazards, adversarial and human-caused threats. A total of 24 specific examples are given for the three categories. It is the six adversarial and human-caused threats that likely create the most emotional distress.
These six are: arson, active shooters, criminal or gang violence, violence related to domestic disputes, bombs, and cyber-attacks.
There is little a congregation can do to prevent an emergency caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, tornadoes, lightning strikes, and hurricanes. Also, a specific congregation or people in the congregation are not an intentional target of these.
In the case of technological hazards such as explosions or accidental releases from industrial plants, a dam failure or a power failure there is little a congregation can prevent. These also do not involve a specific targeting of a congregation or people in the congregation. A recent example was the explosion in West, Texas.
However, in the case of adversarial and human-caused threats the congregational facilities or people in the congregation are the target of the threat. This makes it personal. This makes it highly emotional. This may provide a face on which to focus anger.
In the case of Providence Baptist Church the arsonist may be caught. Life circumstances for that person or persons may be revealed. Providence will then have the opportunity to try out its wings as it seeks to apply the unconditional love of the Triune God. Al Cadenhead, the senior pastor, has offered to talk, to find out what was going on with the person, and what the problem was. He told reporters this was not the way to solve a problem. This speaks to the possibility of a redemptive approach if a face, name, and life is revealed.
At the same time, smoke damage is an interesting thing. It can linger in spite of the best efforts to clean it up. The subtle yet lingering smell of smoke will be reminder of a while of a violation. It will also provide a continual reminder for the need to express forgiveness as forgiveness has been given to each person in this congregation.
Two things linger with me about adversarial and human-caused threats to congregations. First, is how unprepared virtually every congregation I have ever visited seems to be to deal with direct threats and attacks. Rather than order, chaos would likely reign if an attack occurred during weekend worship. There is not a plan, nor a trained team of people, nor an adequate communication system, nor the ability to lock down the preschool and children areas or other areas, nor pre-planning with first responders as to how to interact with them for the best and quickest response to a threat emergency.
Second, congregations I hear talking about responding to active shooters seem to say the answer is to have our own active shooters in the congregation with concealed weapons permits ready to respond. What I appreciate about this manual is that it provides ideas and pathways to actions that would move away from a fire fight approach. As a pseudo-pacifist who desires proactive approaches to non-violence with compelling force as the last resort, this is much more appealing to me.
What does your congregation need to do to prepare itself for an adversarial or human causes threat? What do you need to do if an emergency due to a hazard, threat, or accident of any kind occurs? Two resources I would suggest to you are this FEMA manual, and the book by my friend Greg Hunt, Leading Congregations Through Crisis, and available from www.ChalicePress.com.