Pulpit murder spurs church safety workshop
    May 19 2010 by Vicki Brown, Associated Baptist Press

    ST. LOUIS — The shooting and death of an Illinois Baptist pastor in the middle of a worship service last year brought Steve Heidke face-to-face with the reality that most houses of worship are vulnerable as “soft targets” for crimes, including violent ones.

    That realization birthed a recent training on crime mitigation for houses of worship, involving advice from law-enforcement officials, hosted by Missouri Baptist University (MBU) in St. Louis. Heidke, the school’s director of public safety, was inspired to ask MBU officials to host such an event as a result of the shooting.

    The inspiration
    On March 8, 2009, a gunman walked into the First Baptist Church of Maryville, Ill., and shot Pastor Fred Winters, killing him and wounding two others and himself in the ensuing struggle. After contemplating the local crime — Maryville is a bedroom community just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis — Heidke said he felt “something had to be done.”

    “Criminals think of houses of worship as easy targets, so I brought a proactive and very practical idea of helping houses of worship crack down on crime to the vice presidents at Missouri Baptist University, who thought this would be a wonderful outreach program for our community,” he explained in a May 17 phone interview.

    “We had such a great response that we are considering offering another next year.”

    MBU photo

    A St. Louis County SWAT team member presents information to help houses of worship discover ways to protect themselves from violence.

    Shortly after the shooting, Heidke’s home church asked him to develop a plan for the congregation should something like that ever happen to them. He had already developed a gun-attack plan for MBU in response to the shooting rampage that killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech University in 2007.

    A couple of area churches approached him after learning about the plan he had developed for his congregation. “So I approached the university about doing a workshop for the region,” Heidke said.

    The safety director is a graduate of the Missouri State Highway Patrol Academy and of Central Missouri State University’s Traffic Management Institute. He has served with sheriff’s departments in two Missouri counties and as security director for Monsanto Chemical Co. He has worked for MBU since 2002.

    Drawing on colleagues
    Heidke called on his contacts from 25 years in law enforcement to help with the conference.

    He enlisted representatives from the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department and the city police department to lead several workshop sessions.

    “We basically tried to teach them how to make safety a ministry that all could do — to empower all groups in the church to participate in safety.” Heidke explained. “For example, you can teach ushers and greeters clues to look for as people come in. People in the audio-visual box can be taught how to respond and call for help.”

    Houses of worship are at risk for three primary reasons, Heidke said. Large numbers of people regularly gather in their buildings. Worship centers have a high vulnerability factor, and they are the “softest” or most vulnerable targets.

    More than 100 individuals representing many kinds of churches and other houses of worship attended the workshop. It included a review of security concerns, a demonstration for creating a security ministry and information about local, state and national law-enforcement resources available to churches, synagogues and mosques.

    Workshop leaders encouraged participants to conduct a comprehensive review of their facilities, to develop a written assessment of their risk and to tap available resources.

    Resources already available to churches
    Lack of knowledge about resources was the workshop’s most surprising aspect for Heidke. “The churches didn’t really realize what resources are already available free from local law enforcement, including training,” he said.

    Heidke added that most police departments in larger cities have a community-resource or community-relations officer on staff who can work with churches. Most county sheriff’s offices have a similar staff position as well.

    He also was surprised to discover that most local faith groups have no effective way to communicate with one another in the event of an emergency. “Since Virginia Tech, the universities have a network to immediately let everyone know. But there is no community interchange on an interfaith basis to let people know immediately when something happens,” he said.

    Leading different faith groups to communicate was the best aspect of the workshop, Heidke believes. “It heightened awareness and it got different faiths to communicate about things that would improve security,” he said. “It got different faiths to talking.”

    (EDITOR’S NOTE —  Brown is associate editor of the Missouri Baptist Word & Way.)  

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    5/19/2010 12:43:00 PM by Vicki Brown, Associated Baptist Press | with 0 comments

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