Local churches prepare for the unthinkable

West Michigan law enforcement agencies offer emergency training

Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting
Law enforcement officials works at the scene of a fatal shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017.

HUDSONVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — The images out of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed in a mass shooting Sunday, shatter any illusion that a house of worship is a safe haven from violence.

“We need to think about the what ifs, if something tragic like this happens,” said Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Derek Christensen, who leads the department’s church safety training effort.

More than 500 members from various area congregations have taken part in the program. The curriculum is simple. It starts with the basics, like ways to avoid a problem by recognizing a potential threat.

“Bulky clothing,” Christensen provided as an example. “Things that are protruding from their clothing, which could indicate a weapon or something that could harm someone.”

That’s followed by ways to secure members from the threat, actions as simple as locking doors or moving to a safer area. The class also teaches the best ways to defend against the threat.

Some of the lessons can be a challenge to churches and their mission.

“They want to be open. They want to be accepting of anyone and everyone. It gets a little tricky in that sense,” Christensen said. “Our message is not to cause paranoia or harm or want to cause someone not to leave their home. We just want people to be aware.”

All of the information is based on the idea that knowledge is power. The class aims to create a sense of confidence among members of the church that they can handle a situation. But it also walks the fine line between knowledge and fear.

Members of Grace Community Church in Hudsonville previously participated in the training. Lead Pastor Christopher Hemmerich said avoiding the fear factor has been an ongoing process.

“I think it just requires a lot of conversation, getting the right information from the right people and getting the right people on board to be part of it,” Hemmerich said.

The lesson plan can be put to use in just about any emergency situation, manmade or natural, from an active shooter to a tornado.

Hemmerich said the program has also helped to create additional fellowship among those members who are part of the church’s security team.

“It’s brought in a whole segment of people with gifts, skills and passion into service in the life of the church that previously didn’t see an outlet for that,” he said.

The Kent County Sheriff’s Department offers a similar program.