Many locals in the Historic Triangle gather to worship every Sunday, but it can also be a day for religious congregations to be on edge.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen that the sad reality is congregations are vulnerable,” said Rev. Laura Horton-Ludwig of the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists church. “We’ve seen this a lot and we wish that we did not have to think about safety to this degree but we’re responsible for the safety.”
Active threat training classes have started to become a regular session through James City County as a way to teach church leaders ways they can protect their congregations.
Last year, the county had an active-shooter training class that was so popular that this year, the class is in a larger space with more spots available.
Sara Ruch, emergency manager for James City County, said the idea came after the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018.
“You never know when or where some sort of active threat can occur,” Ruch said. “And this is a group of people that have been targets in the past in different areas, so we want to provide them with more information.”
The course has church leaders all over Greater Williamsburg come together for a classroom-style lesson that teaches them skills for spotting possible threats and how to handle a situation such as an active shooter.
Horton-Ludwig said leaders from her congregation attended the class last year to learn how to protect themselves. While her congregation has never had an active threat situation, she said they have had threatening emails sent to them in 2018.
“Luckily nothing ever came of it,” she said. “We are aware that as a socially active congregation, we take a lot of stances that not everybody agrees with. But we are responsible for everyone’s safety.”
Horton-Ludwig said the difficult part of spotting potential threats is to make sure individuals aren’t being profiled. But Ruch said part of the training helps places of worship connect with each other in order to best spot suspicious behavior across the board.
Those organizations want to create not just a sense of security for themselves but actual safety, Ruch said. Both Ruch and Horton-Ludwig said their eyes have been opened in their congregations after the number of religious-related mass shootings over the years.
The training isn’t just for churches in the area. Ruch said there is a diverse group from all backgrounds attending because it has become such a prevalent concern.
“Because of how strongly so many people hold their religious beliefs, faith communities that are different than your own are easy targets for this way of thinking,” said Rabbi David Katz of Temple Beth El in Williamsburg.
Katz said leaders from his congregation have attended the training sessions in the past and plan to attend the one in James City County.
This year’s training comes after the approval of changes to a bill from the Virginia Senate on Thursday to allow individual places of worship to make a decision on whether guns are allowed in their building.
Democrats and Republicans have different opinions on whether this would make houses of worship more or less safe, but for the leaders who have to make this decision the choice might seem clear.
“This is a place where we come together as a community to learn about and pray for fairness, peace, love, wholeness, and healing,” Katz said. “Weapons are not a part of my experience of any of those things.”
Katz clarified that’s his opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of his congregation’s leaders and members.
The active threat training course will be on Jan. 31 from 8:30 a.m. to noon in the James City County Government Offices boardroom.
Online pre-registration is required.