Welcomed openness disappearing from society

It was about a year ago when I sat in church as usual on Sunday morning, and my priest addressed the congregation about a decision he and Parish Council had made.

Based on the shocking number of violent attacks inside American places of worship, our church now would start locking the doors at the start of Mass. Going forward, the monsignor said if a parishioner or visitor arrived late, they would have to ring the new doorbell at the main entrance, and an usher would come to open the door.

So much for openness. That welcoming comfort of Sunday morning Mass had gone the way of elementary schools where it used to be that parents could stop by unannounced to give a helping hand to their children’s teachers with things like holiday parties or to drop off a forgotten lunchbox. When my boys were in kindergarten, I volunteered for an hour each week at their school to help some of the kids who struggled with beginning reading and learning the alphabet. I remember sitting at a pint-sized desk in the hallway outside the kindergarten classroom where the children would come one by one to practice repeating consonant sounds with me. I’m pretty sure there was no security screening, background check or fingerprinting for volunteers like myself.

Maybe we were naive and foolish, or maybe things were just more safe and simple then.

In the years since, that openness has been replaced by the cold necessity of buzzers, intercoms, uniformed officers and proof of identification before anyone gets into elementary schools.

So, as I sat listening to my priest that Sunday morning, I realized now my church was going the same direction.

Following the most recent deadly mass shooting Nov. 5 at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 25 people were massacred during morning worship, the harsh reality of our world struck again.

Tribune Chronicle reporters, like most local media, often cover ALICE training sessions inside school buildings, hospitals and other places where shooters would most likely strike. ALICE stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate” — the five principles needed to react in an active shooter scenario.

We often publish stories about these training sessions, and as scary as it is to see photos of police inching down corridors of local schools with their weapons drawn, I know it’s necessary because of the world we live in.

Still, that didn’t prepare me for last week’s story when Weathersfield police Chief Michael Naples said the township was planning an ALICE training for local churches. Naples also said Weathersfield police had stepped up patrols at churches during times of worship since the Sutherland Springs shooting. I suspect that’s happening with other proactive departments, too.

Now, he said, it only makes sense to take those patrols a step further with active shooter training.

“We want to be prepared,” he said.

CNN reported recently that in 17 percent of church shootings, the attacker felt unwelcomed or had been rejected by the church, and in 12 percent of the cases, the shooters suffered from a mental illness. Many cases were not random, but actually targeting someone specifically.

Dallas Drake, a criminologist at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, told CNN that statistics have shown shooting incidents inside churches are rarely about religion. Rather, the shootings are part of an overall, albeit alarming, increase in mass shootings nationwide.

Sadly, houses of worship could be the most “convenient venue” for attackers who harbor grudges against former lovers, spouses or friends, Drake said. These places have regular schedules, a general lack of robust security and open-door policies. They are designed to attract the least and the lost, and to welcome them into a loving community, even if that sometimes has terrible consequences.

So while churches still can welcome the lost, I guess it’s not a bad idea to be prepared for the worst. Still, that doesn’t mean we have to like it.