On Nov. 5, 2017, a gunman shot and killed 26 people during a mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, making it the deadliest mass shooting in Texas.
Bob Jordan, a former police officer and resident of St. Hedwig, a town about 15 miles from Sutherland Springs, carries a gun everywhere he goes, including church. He says he wishes he could have been in Sutherland Springs that day.
“You almost say, well I wish I was in the area or been there and would have been locked and loaded to maybe prevent some of these deaths,” Jordan says. “That’s what most people think, especially as ex-law enforcement. I wish there had been somebody there to stop that sooner.”
Stephen Willeford, Sutherland Springs resident and former NRA firearms instructor, did eventually kill the gunman, but not until several people were already dead. Two years later, things turned out differently when another church was attacked. After a gunman shot and killed two people in West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Jack Wilson, the church’s head of security, shot and killed the gunman.
“The people that were on the security team, we have spent numerous hours training and working on just this type of a scenario, hoping it never happens,” Wilson told CBSDFW.
“From the moment he walked in the door, we had eyes on him, both physical eyes and cameras.”
Security in churches is a rapidly growing trend. Before 2017, churches weren’t concerned with a mass shooting hitting their place of worship. But since Sutherland Springs, churches are loading up.
Tommy Sapp, the founder of Protect His House, a Florida-based company that trains church security teams, says he thinks some churches hide their security to ensure everyone is comfortable. Protect His House has only been around for a month, but Sapp’s team has trained one church already and has seven training sessions set up in the next few months. Protect His House’s team trains churches in an eight-hour active shooter class. The team is made up of 15 instructors, who have backgrounds in law enforcement, SWAT and the military.
“I think after the Sutherland Springs shooting over in Texas in 2017, everybody really saw the need for it then, and ever since that shooting, most churches have security, but there are still a lot of churches that still don’t have those teams in place,” Sapp says.
Ben Lovvorn, executive pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, says the 152-year-old church has had security for many years, but it’s something the staff is “constantly reevaluating” to ensure the congregation stays safe.
“All of the shootings really serve as a sobering reminder to us how seriously we must take it,” Lovvorn says.
The church’s security is included in the budget, but Lovvorn says he can’t reveal “specifics” of the number of security personnel on staff. Nearby, First Baptist Church Garland spent $23,000 on security in 2018, according to its website, and Watermark Community Church spent 16% of its $31.1 million budget on “operating, maintaining, and developing the facilities,” according to its website.
But Lovvorn says there are armed security guards, on-duty uniformed police officers, plainclothes police officers, a volunteer security team and retired law enforcement officers scattered throughout the church’s campus.
If there are church members against church security, Lovvorn isn’t aware.
“Our ultimate hope and trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ and we know God is sovereign and in control of all things,” he says. “But he also expects us to apply wisdom in every situation and he gives us that wisdom and as church leaders, we’re called upon to lead and guide and protect those he has entrusted to our care, so there is a spiritual aspect to it, but God expects us to be prudent in the way we conduct our worship services.”
In fact, Sapp says the Bible has examples of guarding the church.
“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe,” Luke 11:21 reads.
First Baptist Church Dallas allows its church members to carry concealed handguns on its campus, though Lovvorn says church members should rely on its security team. Laura Hendricks, however, still carries her gun to the Dallas church.
“It’s in my nature to carry everywhere regardless,” Hendricks says. “I don’t look at carrying at church any differently than I would look at carrying when I’m walking my dog or if I go shopping at NorthPark.”
In a 2019 ABC News article, John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, said churches are a target of mass shootings because of the infamy.
"Killing men, women, and children while they are praying ensures that the public will pay attention to the attack and creates an incredible amount of fear and that is the ultimate objective of the attacker," he said.
In October 2018, a Pittsburgh synagogue was the target of a mass shooting that left 11 people dead. Six months later, another gunman killed one person in a suburban San Diego synagogue. The synagogue did not have a guard at the time, according to The New York Times.
“I do think Christians are being persecuted and they are being attacked, but we’ve seen that throughout history dating back to the Bible,” Lovvorn says. "But we also acknowledge it’s not just Christians being attacked, it’s people of all faiths, and it’s important that everyone is able to worship freely without concern.”