NEWTON, Kan. — As Mennonites gathered in a church basement Oct. 27 to discuss how they might respond to a shooter in their church, cell phones buzzed with news of a massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The deadliest hate crime against Jews in U.S. history, which claimed 11 lives, seemed to back up warnings that an armed person could target anyone’s congregation.
About 40 people representing five Mennonite congregations in Newton and North Newton gathered at First Mennonite Church to take part in an active-shooter response training and conversation about how Mennonites could implement ideas to counter or evade a lethal threat.
“Do we want to engage it?” asked Joel Schroeder, pastor of missional ministries at First Mennonite Church. “The reality is we can’t not engage it.”
Newton Police Department officer Luke Winslow cited incidents like the 2016 shooting spree that left three people dead and 14 wounded in Harvey County and ended when a Mennonite police officer killed the gunman at Excel Industries in Hesston.
“Newton is the 11th most dangerous suburb in America per capita,” said Winslow of other multiple homicides since then.
“. . . I don’t say if, I say when.”
Winslow and officer Morgan Hinz led a training using the ALICE curriculum used by many schools and organizations. The system — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — is intended to give people options that increase the chances of survival in a lethal attacker situation.
While lockdowns used to be the standard response to someone posing a danger, the ALICE system recommends a variety of options, such as barricading doors while people find escape routes, or confronting and disorienting an attacker.
“It’s a numbers game,” said Winslow, noting a majority of attackers ultimately kill themselves before being apprehended by police. “They know they’re on the clock. If they meet resistance, they will move on. . . .
“Countering is all about buying time and disorienting so the police arrive and you can get out.”
Barricades and window escapes can work in many classroom and office settings, but sanctuaries are a different environment. The officers recommended flinging hymnals at an assailant while worshipers head for the doors.
“People say I can’t throw that, it’s a church book, but it works as well as any other book,” Winslow said, also suggesting locking up the church once worship begins. “. . . I’m actually a big fan of that, but a lot of churches are against that because it’s a house of God.”
Other recommendations included refraining from using “gun-free zone” signage and keeping an eye on individual visitors.
“How often do you have somebody come to your church alone without someone?” asked Hinz. “It’s rare.”
A culture of fear
In a lunchtime conversation following the training, some participants said the ALICE system was less confrontational than they had assumed, and many elements of it could be used by Anabaptists should the need arise.
But peaceable people thinking about the unthinkable is different than basing decisions on fear.
“I don’t want to buy into a culture of fear,” said Dawn Yoder Harms, pastor of Bethel College Mennonite Church. “While it behooves us to think about safety, I do not want my life or our places of worship to be governed by fear.”
Derrick Ramer, pastor of New Creation Fellowship, noted he had just affixed gun-free stickers to his church’s doors. He felt at peace telling the public about that aspect of how the church functions, despite warnings from the officers that such symbols indicate the church is a “soft target.”
Newton police chief Eric Murphy, a member of First Mennonite who was not present at the training, said in an interview that many members of the religious community think about hypothetical active-shooter situations differently because they like to see the good in individuals.
“Mennonites in particular teach peace, and when you’re talking about an individual coming into the church who may want to do harm and doesn’t have that same philosophy, there’s a contradiction that needs to be dealt with,” he said.
He said churches don’t have to implement every ALICE element. The important thing is to be aware of options and not panic should something happen.
“I don’t know that we need to live in fear of this happening, but we need to be prepared for something like this to happen,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing — the preparation. It’s up to each individual church to decide what steps they choose to take.”