It seems horrifying to imagine that the places we have used for worship, sanctuary, community, fellowship, love and connection, places that for millennia have helped define our own identity are now having to be prepared for violence and death. I can’t even believe I am having to write these words. It pains me to know that shootings happen everywhere, every day, more frequently than you may realize, yet most go unreported in mainstream media.
When I first started working in Disaster Response work, training and education around “Active Shooter” was not at the very top of the list of disasters. Yet it is now. I regularly attend webinars, have conversations and meetings on how to be more effective in responding to Active Shooter events, and spend time supporting spiritual communities, houses of worship, to be prepared for an Active Shooter. However, as depressing as that may sound, the good news is that everyone can help prepare the spiritual community for something we hope never happens. It is NOT the sole responsibility of the pastor, rabbi, or spiritual leader of a house of worship, we can minister and care for our community together.
Unfortunately houses of worship have become targets and symbols of hate through vandalism, arson, or active shooters. As tragic as these events are, I want you know, for me, doing this type of work deepens my own faith. Having these conversations and helping faith-based organizations, eventually makes the greater community stronger, demonstrating the resiliency of the human spirit, and because of people’s faith and spiritual practices – regardless of their faith tradition or life philosophy.
What I offer here are some first steps, just an overview of actions you can take in your spiritual home when confronted with an active shooter. It is imperative you have a Disaster Preparedness Plan in place – and, yes, an Active Shooter is considered a disaster, every bit as much as a tornado, earthquake, flood, fire, chemical spill, etc. Active shooter incidents are quick, motivated by anger, mental illness, ideology, or revenge, and for the most part unpredictable.
Hopefully this will help you get conversations started in your community, and support you in taking some next steps with credentialed law enforcement individuals help you, and how you can work together to be prepared before, during and after these horrific events. Not every recommendation pertains to every single situation or facility. What you will read here is from FEMA, law enforcement officials and my personal experience and training as a Disaster Chaplain.
If you do nothing else after reading all this, please connect with law enforcement to help you create an Emergency Action Plan for your community.
Most active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Most incidents are over within minutes, so we must be prepared to deal with the situation until law enforcement personnel arrive. Preparedness and awareness are the keys to helping protect yourself and those around you. Active shooter incidents, as we are sadly learning, happen more frequently than you may know, and occur pretty much anywhere: the mall, in homes, at places of employment, and yes in our churches.
What can I/we do to be prepared?
- Be aware of the environment and any possible dangers
- One small example is that perhaps our church volunteers may need to leave their eyes open during prayer or meditation. Oftentimes I look around the room and notice everyone’s eyes are closed during prayer and meditation, and even during some songs. It’s one reason I often keep mine open. I have learned to be with the meditation while my eyes are open. Perhaps you start rotating who “keeps watch over the flock.” Remember, we do this NOT from a consciousness of fear, but from a consciousness of wisdom, compassion, love and caring.
- For every event at your church, staff and volunteers should be prepared and trained in the plan of action that provides support for those with functional needs, such as hearing, sight, mobility, as well as limited or no English (also includes service animals). This is also one small example of being aware of our environment and who is in that environment, and any potential dangers.
- Take note of the nearest exits
- Does everyone know the nearest exit? Just like on the airplane, the flight attendants ask you to notice where the exits are, keeping in mind it might be behind you.
- Let’s not be afraid to find creative ways to let our congregations know periodically where those exits are, not just in the sanctuary, but also for gatherings you have during the week which may be held in places other than the sanctuary.
- What if the event is outside? Does everyone know what door is closest to them at any given moment, and are those doors unlocked?
- Have an escape route and plan in mind.
- Do the differently-abled know the exits, can they access them, who will help them?
- Get a Disaster Preparedness Plan in place
- It’s a multi-phase process, and begins with preparing just the individual, then the church community, then connecting with the greater community and other faith-based organizations and beyond. Use trained people to come support your spiritual community in creating a plan through a theological lens, from a place of principle and a consciousness of good stewardship, love and compassion.
- An effective plan includes multiple elements regarding reporting (who, how and for what), evacuating and escaping, networking with local responders and medical facilities, to name a few. Then PRACTICE the plan regularly, and keep it current.
What can I/we do immediately during the shooting?
- RUN: If there is an accessible path to an exit, then make the attempt to run, but you need to know where the nearest exit is (see #2).
- Leave your belongings behind.
- Help others escape, if possible.
- Evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow.
- What if the event is outside? Does everyone know what door is closest to them at any given moment so they can take cover inside? Are those doors unlocked?
- Prevent individuals from entering an area where the active shooter may be.
- Keep your hands visible. The police only know that there is a person with a weapon inside; they do not know whether or not you are that person. Showing your hands is necessary to demonstrate that you are not a threat to them.
- Follow the instructions of any police officers.
- Meet everyone’s needs, differently-abled included.
- HIDE: Wherever you are, if you’re in an office or classroom and not the sanctuary when a shooting happens, stay there and secure the door. If you’re in a hallway, go into a room and lock the door, quickly hide where you are least likely to be found. I know for some there is an instinct to go find others, especially when children are involved, but again, I offer the airplane safety analogy: put your own oxygen mask on first. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to want to run and find my child, but the safe thing to do is hide first. If your church community is emergency prepared, with a Disaster Preparedness Plan and has practiced it, then your children are with other adults, who have been trained, doing exactly what you are doing, running or hiding.
- Be out of the active shooter’s view.
- Provide protection if shots are fired (for example, an office with a closed and locked door).
- Blockade the door with heavy furniture. This also provides additional protection.
- Close, cover, and move away from any windows.
- Hide behind a large item (for example, a cabinet or desk).
- Silence your cell phone and/or pager. (Even the vibrate setting can give away a hiding position.)
- Remain quiet.
- FIGHT, as an absolute LAST resort
- If your life is in imminent danger, attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter. THIS RESPONSE IS REALLY FOR SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN TRAINED TO REACT APPROPRIATELY IF CONFRONTED WITH AN ACTIVE SHOOTER. As these situations evolve quickly, quick decisions could mean the difference between life and death. If people are in harm’s way, they will need to decide rapidly what the safest course of action is based on the scenario that is unfolding.
- Call 911 ONLY when it is safe to do so
- This is one reason I DON’T invite people to turn off their cell phones during Sunday services. I often joke from the pulpit about leaving phones on because I will say something profound they will want to tweet or post on Facebook, but I am also asking them to keep it on for our safety. I don’t say that outright, but that is part of my intention. In the face of ANY emergency, I want immediate access to 911 when it is safe to do.
- There are also several apps that help you track family members and enact your church emergency preparedness plan through the use of apps, so I don’t want to spend any time waiting to turn my phone back on.
What can I/we do afterwards?
- Work as a team, it takes a village
- Come up with a list of the actions you would take to protect yourself and those around you. Make these part of your church Disaster Preparedness Plan, and begin to train volunteers, using local law enforcement and first responders.
- Conduct practices or exercises. Learn to recognize indicators of potential violence. Staff and volunteers should be trained in identifying the sound of gunfire, how to react quickly when gunshots are heard or when a shooting is witnessed. Run, hide or fight (as a last resort), call 911, know how to react and what to do when law enforcement arrives, and adopt a survival mindset during times of crisis.
- Allow law enforcement to do their job, “stay in your lane” by learning the protocols to follow once law enforcement has arrived on the scene.
- At the very least, connect with law enforcement to create an Active Shooter Plan. There are multiple resources available to you. I’ve included a link at the end to help get you started.
Eventually, law enforcement will arrive, and the initial emergency itself will end. Then comes the aftermath, once survival needs are met. The loss of life, how many injured, and the sheer devastation – physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually – eventually sets in as our brain moves out of amygdala hijack survival mode and back into realization, trying to grasp the present moment. The ambulances, police, and any first responders slowly leave your house of worship, and life does continue. The response was the sprint. Now comes the marathon of recovery. Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding the spiritual care of your community.
The minister is not the sole proprietor, it takes everyone to move through the grief, anger, sadness, insecurity, helplessness and anything else people are experiencing, so help each other. It is not the sole responsibility of the spiritual leader. And if you are leader reading this, don’t do it alone. Part of your emergency action plan should include building networks and relationships with faith communities throughout your community. Now is the time to reach out for support, beyond the support your loved ones provide. It doesn’t matter what anyone’s theology is in these moments, recognize that everyone is being in service, loving you and supporting you BECAUSE of their theology, because of their faith.
Questions need to be asked about whether to have the upcoming Sunday service in the house of worship. Will it be traumatizing for people? Is there still clean up to be done? Are there repairs (bullet holes) to be made or do we leave them? Will the damage people see trigger them? Do we have ways to help people through those triggers? How can we create rituals around healing the space, and being in it without being further traumatized? How can we make peace with a space that potentially can carry such horrific memories? There are many, many questions that emerge after a disaster, and so please reach out and talk to someone who knows what to ask you, who knows the signs and can help you see them within yourself and others. While there is not a one size fits all response to these events, we also know our faith will lead us home – wherever that home may be.
Spiritual health is quintessential for long-term recovery and healing from the confusion, grief and darkness that accompanies great loss. Without it we run the risk of not living from our sense of wholeness, of not stepping back into life with a sense of adventure and creativity, of not being willing to risk new experiences. This becomes imperative the further away we get from the initial trauma.
Spiritual health is marked by clarity of purpose, grounded in a recognition of the Source of all life, even in the midst of what may be the worst time of someone’s life. Stay focused, know your personal mission and what you value most. Know your limitations, your strengths and weaknesses. Care for your own well-being by remaining open to discovering new depths of pain as well as new heights of enthusiasm and celebration because this reflects a balanced life – a life of service, a life of caring, a life guided by wisdom and created with compassion.