Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul invited a security expert to evaluate its building Friday as it doubles down on efforts to fortify the premises.
Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, which last month offered church safety training to more than 100 faith leaders, added a session this week because of growing concerns.
The imam at Masjid Al-Ansar Islamic Community Center was among the religious leaders at a recent U.S. Attorney’s Office forum for religious leaders, and is weighing the recommended security for his Brooklyn Park mosque.
Minnesota’s faith leaders, authorities on sacred books and prayer, are increasingly studying building safety handbooks, hiring security advisers, and inviting law enforcement to get to know their buildings.
While many houses of worship have beefed up building safety in recent years, those precautions have gained fresh momentum following the killing of 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, one of many recent mass shootings, including one last week at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
“We’ve been doing this [security] all along, but now we want to do more,” said Larry Solomon, executive director at Mount Zion.
Religious groups are particularly vulnerable to safety breaches, security experts say, in part because of the large number of people entering their buildings. They often offer meals for the homeless, child care, Alcoholics Anonymous groups, and host community events — plus all the usual church activities.
They weigh being welcoming with safety.
“It’s always a balancing act,” said the Rev. Judy Zabel of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. “You’re not trained for this in seminary.”
A wave of incidents
The Pittsburgh synagogue murders were the latest violence directed at faith groups. In 2017, 26 worshipers were murdered at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In 2016, an imam and a friend were gunned down after leaving a New York City mosque. In 2015, nine people were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
That’s not to mention violence in Minnesota, such as the 2017 bombing of a Bloomington mosque and bomb threats that same year against Jewish community centers in St. Paul and St. Louis Park.
The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas last month hired its first full-time director of community security. Former Plymouth Deputy Police Chief Dan Plekkenpol is helping Jewish institutions initially but also will advise other faith groups, said Steve Hunegs, JCRC’s executive director.
The timing happened to coincide with the Pittsburgh murders, said Hunegs. He called the hiring “testimony to the entire community’s concern for safety.”
On Friday, Plekkenpol toured Mount Zion with Solomon, notebook in hand, one of about a half-dozen such visits he makes each week.
“We’re not starting at ground zero,” Solomon told Plekkenpol, as they began walking down the halls.
Mount Zion has had a safety committee for four years, Solomon said. Staff receives security training. A St. Paul Police SWAT team regularly checks out the building. Security cameras roll 24/7. There’s just one visitor entrance, and it requires staff to let the person in.
Plekkenpol nodded approvingly.
“How many staff have received [security] training?” Plekkenpol asked. “Do you have fire extinguisher training? … Do you have an evacuation area?”
The tour stopped near the temple’s back door. Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker inquired about several security measures, then added: “What happens when you see someone you know pounding at the [back] door?” asked Spilker. “Do we be nice and let them in?”
Spilker’s questions reflects a common concern among faith leaders. They don’t want to put up barriers to their own congregants, or tarnish their spiritual mission.
“You don’t want to look like [the security at] Buckingham Palace,” said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel in Minneapolis.
About 100 religious leaders attended a security forum organized by the JCRC and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Apple Valley last week. A panel of experts recommended various strategies: Get a security assessment and follow its recommendations. Create a security committee. Plan emergency drills, even during religious services.
And consider applying for a Department of Homeland Security grant to pay for defenses.
‘Attacks ... don’t just happen’
Imam Mohammed Dukuly of the Brooklyn Park Islamic Community Center was among those sitting near the front. While the Muslim community sprang to action following the Bloomington bombing, there remains much to learn, he said.
“I think if we implement these ideas, we’ll be able to avoid a lot of things,” he said.
Michael Rozen, a former Israeli security officer who advises synagogues, is pleased that such events are encouraging faith leaders to plan ahead.
“The attacks, they just don’t happen,” said Rozen. “The perpetrator thinks about it, fantasizes about it, researches the target, visits the target, knows the schedule.”
Faith groups interested in learning more can attend a training Thursday at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. Bryant Holmstrom, facilities director there, said the church has sponsored annual security events for three years. The number of attendees jumped from about 50 to more than 100 last month.
“It’s kind of a daunting subject,” said Holmstrom. “But churches need to know that they can be secure, and they also can be welcoming.”