Places of worship are not exempt from mass shootings, and one member of Williamsburg’s religious community knows tragedy could strike here, too.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise,” said Pastor Sam Frye of First Simple Church. “Evil is here, God makes that clear.”
Frye is one of 50 leaders from area faith-based organizations who has registered for an active-shooter safety class from the James City County Police Department on March 5. This is the first time the department has offered training like this, according to Officer Shenee Graham, and it’s seen by some as a necessity.
Teaching basics for “the reality of today”
The class allows members of faith-based organizations from James City County to learn basic safety measures for situations such as an active shooter. It’s available to faith leaders of all denominations who want to protect their worshippers.
For Special Agent Austin White of the Virginia State Police, who has taught classes like this for the past year, it comes down to crime-prevention principles, he said. This means preparing for many potential hazards, especially an active shooter.
“Classes like this make people realize the reality of today,” White said. “The adage of ‘it could never happen here’ doesn’t work anymore, because it could happen anywhere, at any time.”
Available data lends some support to the observation.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, large gatherings can provide a potential target. And the violent crime rate increased by 3.4 percent nationwide in 2016, the largest single-year increase in 25 years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Not replacing the police
As pastor, Frye has already taken steps to protect his congregation.
First Simple Church has created a 19-member team of anonymous attendees who function as a security team.
The team goes through a four-month training course, which takes a few hours a week and focuses on emergency preparedness. The team also patrols the parking lot, monitors church entrances and protects the children’s area during services.
“What people need to understand is that a church-security team is not meant to take the place of first responders,” Frye said. “People need to understand what their limitations are — not replace the police.”
White’s approach stresses preparation, too.
For dangerous situations, White suggests a technique known as A.D.D., which stands for avoid, deny, defend. This means to avoid dangerous situations if possible and deny entry to by hiding or getting as far from the danger as possible; the very last resource is to defend.
“If you have a threatening situation before you, you have to decide in that moment what you’re going to do,” White said. “And it’s better to be prepared ahead of time for something that might not happen than be in a dangerous situation and not know what to do.”
Bad things happen
White also sees a role for security teams in any organization or large congregation of people.
“We know that there are bad things that happen in the world,” White said. “Now is the time to ask ourselves, ‘what would I do if that happened to me today?’”
Frye echoes that view.
He believes in the will and protection of his Lord, and he also believes churches need to be aware of the environment in which they operate.
“Some people will disagree with taking a stance like this and say that we need to place faith in God,” Frye said. “But God gave us a brain and we need to use it.”
Editor’s Note: WYDaily reported this story before the Feb. 14 shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school. Before publication, WYDaily confirmed with the James City County Police Department that its active-shooter training will proceed as scheduled on March 5.
Correction: This training is available to a total of 50 people from faith-based organizations in James City County, not to two people apiece from 50 organizations in Williamsburg and James City County, as the story originally reported.