LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Over the past several years, gunmen have killed dozens of people inside U.S. houses of worship - from Charleston to Pittsburgh to just outside Fort Worth, Texas. Since then, some congregations have strengthened their security. As St. Louis Public Radio's Shahla Farzan reports, faith leaders are walking a fine line between security and spiritual sanctuary.
SHAHLA FARZAN, BYLINE: It's a frigid Sunday morning in Wildwood, Mo., west of St. Louis. And a winter storm has just blown through town. But that doesn't stop worshipers from gathering at Fellowship of Wildwood Baptist Church.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) What blessed assurance I found in you.
FARZAN: One congregant sits off to the side in a dark corner. He scans the crowd, his posture alert and his hand on his hip. Tucked away under his jacket is a handgun. He's one of about a dozen people in this congregation who are allowed to bring guns to church, says Pastor Russ Ewing.
RUSS EWING: I think they provide that level of peace that would help a person who might otherwise not come to church on Sunday morning to go ahead and come. And that's what we want. We want people to come to our church.
FARZAN: Fellowship of Wildwood member Kaitlin Defriese says she isn't bothered by the idea of guns at church. She moved to Missouri from Florida. And she says it was much more common for congregants there to carry weapons.
KAITLIN DEFRIESE: That church that I was in was very much Southerners. Everybody had their guns, not - security teams had their guns. The mamas had their guns in their diaper bags.
FARZAN: More congregations are now relying on armed members to protect churches, says retired Buffalo Police Officer Steven Padin. He's the founder of The Watchman's Academy, a consulting company that does security training with churches. The organization takes its name from the watchman in the book of Ezekiel.
STEVE PADIN: If he saw any impending danger coming towards the city, he was supposed to sound the alarm. And the people were to go ahead and go at arms to protect themselves against the impending danger.
FARZAN: Some faith leaders are hiring security consultants like Padin after recent attacks on religious spaces. But for others, this is not a new issue.
ZE’EV SMASON: We have a collective institutional memory, if you will, going back 3,000 years when we have suffered terribly.
FARZAN: Rabbi Ze’ev Smason leads Nusach Hari B'nai Zion Synagogue in Olivette, Mo. He says the Tree Of Life shooting in Pittsburgh was a turning point. His synagogue did active shooter training, and they hired armed guards. Smason says he doesn't have any moral qualms about guns inside the sanctuary. He compares it to having a lock on your front door.
SMASON: A gun itself - it's only as good or as evil as the hands of the person who's holding it and using it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
FARZAN: Safety is also a key concern for leaders at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis. On a recent afternoon, security guards stand watch as worshippers hurry into the mosque for their daily prayers. Mufti Asif Umar says they've strengthened their security in recent years, though he declined to give specific details. Umar says God is the ultimate protector, but they still have to be prepared. He cites a passage from the Quran in which the Prophet Muhammad sees his companion leaving a camel without tying it up.
MUFTI ASIF UMAR: So the Prophet Muhammad said that, you know, tie your camel first and then trust in God. So if you just leave it there and you go, there's a good chance the camel can run away, right? So it's like that.
FARZAN: Umar says they do everything they can to keep their members safe.
UMAR: And then, you know, we leave the rest in the hands of God.
FARZAN: But some faith leaders worry extra security measures come at a spiritual cost.
PAUL NIEMANN: I think, in the long term, what that can do to a church is make us very isolated. And we can begin to start looking too much inward.
EWING: Father Paul Niemann leads St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis.
NIEMANN: We want to be a place where anybody from anywhere can come and worship with us. We can't do that if your doors are locked, if you got people standing at the door, you know, checking IDs or something like that. That doesn't communicate the kind of welcome that we want to be.
FARZAN: The Archdiocese of St. Louis doesn't allow weapons of any kind on church property, with an exception for active and retired law enforcement officers. Personally, Neimann doesn't think guns have a place in churches.
NIEMANN: I've always been drawn more to the aspect of the gospel that teaches nonviolence. To me, that's more compatible with the message of Jesus than this protective kind of approach, you know, this warfare kind of approach, if you will.
FARZAN: Neimann says at his congregation, more guns are not the answer. For NPR News, I'm Shahla Farzan in St. Lewis.
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