For the last several weeks, the Marion First United Methodist Church has focused its Sunday services on a vital yet traumatic topic — mental illness.
“You have to be aware that we have a mental health crisis in Iowa, and I believe that part of the role of the church is to address that faithfully,” Pastor Michael Morgan said. “Over and over again, we’ve seen mental health services cut, while the need for those services continues to grow. And as Christians, we are not immune to mental health issues. So what we wanted to do with this series of sermons is try to reduce the stigma that is often attached to mental illness and let those who are struggling know they are not alone — they have our support.”
Last Sunday, a startling turn of events at the 10:15 a.m. service showed how resolute that support is, but also set into motion actions that the church’s safety team had learned to deal with the unthinkable — a loaded gun in the sanctuary.
“When you deal with the messy, sometimes the messy embodies itself,” Morgan said.
In the service, he said, they were discussing depression, anxiety and suicide — topics that often go unaddressed because they are so difficult to broach.
But on this Sunday, the discussion moved one man to share his own experiences.
“One of our members, who really intended to do something very wonderful, came up and gave his own personal testimony about his struggle with depression,” Morgan said. “This was unrehearsed and unannounced. He just came up at the end of the service and asked me for a moment and I gave it to him.”
The man spoke candidly of his battle with depression, Morgan said, but the conversation took a concerning turn.
As he discussed struggling with suicidal thoughts, the man unholstered a loaded gun from his waist and “mimicked what he had at one time thought of doing to himself,” Morgan said.
Seeing the gun, the church’s safety team sprang into action as the members had learned.
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One person secured a wing of the building that led to children. Another called the Marion police. Others assumed what the pastor called “critical incident positions,” or strategic positions within the building.
Morgan said the safety team’s actions were strictly precautionary as the man made no threats.
“I was 3 feet from him and never felt threatened or that he was going to do anything,” Morgan said. “But a loaded gun is a loaded gun and when you have a church full of hundreds of people, you go with security first and sort the rest out later.”
When the man finished, he was greeted with support from the congregation, the pastor said. Those who knew him hugged him.
Members of the security team took the man aside and asked for his firearm, which he handed over willingly, Morgan said.
When Marion police arrived, according to public information officer Tom Daubs, the man “willingly went with officers to a hospital to get treatment.”
He was not arrested and no charges were filed, Daubs said.
“I’m not going to underplay the incident because it was pretty impactful for some,” Morgan said. “But at the same time, there was no panic in our congregation. Those that know him knew that his heart was well, and he just used a really bad visual aid. There was no malice or intent or anything except to try to help people.”
Last summer, Marion First United Methodist moved from downtown to a newly-built church on Highway 13, just north of the city. In building that facility, Morgan said numerous safety features were incorporated. Additionally, the church formed a safety council, as well as a safety team, and developed protocols and action plans to address potentially life-threatening events.
“We can’t stop evil,” the pastor said. “And we know that from all the school shootings and church shootings that have occurred. But you can certainly try to truncate it, and to minimize its impact,”
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Linn County Sheriff’s Deputy Maj. Doug Riniker said it has become more common for churches, schools, businesses and other organizations to develop safety protocols that deal specifically with active shooter situations.
Riniker said the Sheriff’s Office is often asked to by local entities — Marion Methodist included — to evaluate the safety of their buildings and conduct active-shooter training.
The Marion Methodist safety team, Morgan said, consists of volunteers from the congregation. They have undergone active-shooter training, taken first aid and CPR classes and trained in de-escalation tactics, as well as methods to distract, disorient and delay a potential shooter until help comes.
In its 178 years, the church has never experienced any other gun-related incidents, Morgan said. The church has implicitly been a gun-free zone, the pastor said, but now “we will likely be looking at whether we will create a written policy” banning guns.
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