PLEASANTVILLE — For the Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois III, the issue of safety arose when his church started heightening security measures back in the summer.
The senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church said the place of worship created a security team, set up a safe room, developed an evacuation plan and had drills in case of an emergency. But they don’t want security measures to hinder the values of the church by locking the doors or not letting some people in.
They want to continue being an inclusive and affirming place, Francois said.
“We keep our doors open,” he said, but “we have to have conversations.”
Francois’ church was the location of the house of worship safety forum Dec. 19, which drew more than 300 people from different faiths and houses of worship around Atlantic County to the church’s WinSan Center. The Atlantic County Coalition for a Safe Community held the forum in response to concerns about attacks in places of worship across the country, such as the November shooting that killed 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Every seat was taken in the center, with people listening to presentations from local law-enforcement officials, New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.
Officials addressed signs of suspicious activity to look for, such as someone who comes unannounced to check on security, people entering a house of worship looking for supplies, or people wearing unseasonably bulky clothing. They encouraged people to collaborate with other houses of worship on a security plan, and to contact law enforcement for an assessment of the physical structures and security.
The forum also went over what to do in an active shooter or an “active killer” situation, such as evacuating from the area or hiding in a locked room and safe area, as well as victim care and cooperation with law-enforcement protocol.
It fostered a discussion and exposure for the issue, but these types of conversations should have started years ago, Francois said.
John Rios, the chief financial officer at the Milton & Betty Katz Jewish Community Center in Margate, said during the forum he gathered a good perspective on what his role should be in helping to protect his religious community.
“They did a wonderful job preparing synagogues, churches and places of worship,” he said, “how to prepare, reduce the risk and mitigate any types of danger.”
Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said at the forum that it’s important to make sure people who are a part of a house of worship understand what to do in a time of crisis, since they are with each other often. But he addressed that it can be difficult to think about security while abiding by the teachings of a house of worship.
“We as all people of God welcome people that are different. That is what we were taught to do,” Tyner said. “We don’t reject people, we don’t turn them away.”
The conversation at the forum from the audience also quickly shifted to gun laws in New Jersey. Many brought up concerns about the laws surrounding self-defense and the rights to carry a weapon. Officials at the forum briefly discussed gun laws in the state, but urged people to remember the protocols discussed at the forum if in a dangerous situation.
The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security also has the Interfaith Advisory Council, an initiative that invites religious leaders from around the 21 counties to talk about developments several times a year, spokesman Patrick Rigby said.
Rigby added that if there is suspicious activity observed in any house of worship, it should be reported to the police and the office of Homeland Security by calling 1-866-4-SAFE-NJ (866-472-3365) or emailing email@example.com.