Public Safety

Cedar Rapids religious centers step up security, just in case Having a safety team has become essential, official says

Thom Darden (center) a monitor for the congregation at Bethel AME Church, visits Nov. 3 with congregants before the Sunday worship service at the southeast Cedar Rapids church. Darden, a former professional football player with the Cleveland Browns, and other monitors are positioned to intervene when called upon by greeters. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Thom Darden (center) a monitor for the congregation at Bethel AME Church, visits Nov. 3 with congregants before the Sunday worship service at the southeast Cedar Rapids church. Darden, a former professional football player with the Cleveland Browns, and other monitors are positioned to intervene when called upon by greeters. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When three historically black churches in a Louisiana parish were suspiciously burned in March and April, church leaders at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids began to seriously consider how they would protect their congregation if a hate crime were committed here.

“It has to go from dialogue to implementation,” the Rev. Leoma Leigh-Williams said. “Securing the house is not something we wait for God to do.”

Two volunteers — in addition to greeters — now monitor the front entry every Sunday, and the side entrance is kept locked. One of the monitors is a military veteran. The other a former pro football player.

When the service starts, they remain on “high alert,” Leigh-Williams said.

According to 2017 data from the FBI — the most recent available — 58.1 percent of hate crimes are racially or ethnically motivated and 22 percent of them are motivated by religious bias. Of all hate crimes, nearly 1 in 5 — 17.4 percent — occur at places of worship.

Out of 276 active shootings between 2000 and 2018 in the United States, 11 targeted houses of worship, said Todd Voter, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Iowa,

Building a safety team has become an “essential” part of safeguarding religious centers, said Chris Judge, protective security adviser with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Ideally, the teams would include people with backgrounds in emergency planning, police or fire departments and security.

“When you hear about a shooting in a house of worship, you think, ‘Are we safe?’” he said last month during a seminar on “Protecting Places of Worship,” adding that the aftershock of a hate crime “ripples” across entire faith communities.

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Leaders at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids began more serious conversations about protecting their congregation following the March 15 mosque shootings in New Zealand during Friday prayer.

Hassan Selim, imam at the Islamic Center, said they began taking steps this year to secure the building. But securing a mosque has different challenges than securing other places of worship, Selim said. With five daily prayers, the mosque is open to worshippers almost all day.

Selim also is interested in pursuing active-shooter training, which is offered by the Linn County Sheriff’s Office and Cedar Rapids Police Department upon request. However, since worshippers at the mosque are required to remove their shoes, training where people “run and hide” could be “chaotic,” he said.

Selim said the best thing Islamic Center leaders can do is cultivate relationships with other faith communities in Cedar Rapids.

“Sharing community will keep us safe,” Selim said. “And if something does happen, will have a strong community to stand with us afterward.”

Bethel AME also is taking steps toward hosting active shooter training. Leigh-Williams is beginning discussions with other church leaders to create plans in the event of any emergency — from natural disasters like fires or tornadoes to attacks from a ramming vehicle or an active shooter.

Leigh-Williams, who has been a pastor at Bethel for two years, recalled two episodes at the church where she felt threatened.

One was when a man walked through the doors without greeting anyone, marched into the sanctuary and came right up to the front of the church to her.

Leigh-Williams said he was seeking help and prayer, but was intrusive.

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“That’s when it really sank in. We have to be alert, aware and watch. We’ve got to ask questions” like, “May I help you?” she said.

Another time, a couple visiting the church directed threatening comments to Leigh-Williams. She filed a police report, she said.

For too long, Leigh-Williams said, religious centers have had a “passive response” to security threats.

“It’s the responsibility of church leadership to secure the house,” she said.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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