ELIZABETHTOWN — Is it OK to carry guns to church? Should we? How should houses of worship prepare for the possibility of an active threat? Those are just some of the questions facing congregations in the United States and across Bladen County.
Gary Turlington and Barry Pait, sergeants in charge of security training for the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, will be addressing the issue in local churches starting next month.
“The Sheriff’s Office here wants to work closer with community and (Sheriff Jim) McVicker is leading the charge,” Turlington said. “We are assisting churches, or any houses of worship, to prepare for security risks that may arise. This initiative is an outreach between houses of worship and first responders.
“Typically, the community doesn’t have opportunity to interact with us unless it is through enforcement,” he added. “This is a proactive step, not enforcement. We want to work with the community and all assets in the community.”
The conversation in the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association began to take place within the last several years regarding what needed to be done at the state level to address the safety of congregations. It was determined that training of local deputies would take place at the state level, and those trained officers would return to their districts and train clergy and churches.
That’s where Turlington and Pait, who have just returned from that training, come in. They want to meet with local clergy and give them a snapshot of their plan.
“I will meet with clergy in a few weeks and we will present an overview,” Turlington said. “For any church that wishes for me to come out, I will meet with church staff and address concerns.”
He added that every church is different and has different requirements for safety.
“There was such an interest throughout state; the community really pushed for this,” Pait said.
The message that Turlington and Pait hope to convey is one of awareness.
“Would you go to bed at night without locking your doors?” asks Turlington. “You wouldn’t do that anymore. Why? Because times have changed. The days of thinking that it can’t happen here are over.”
“Since 1999 there have been 1,018 deadly force incidents and 549 death on religious properties,” Turlington said, citing a CNN report. “I’ve been in law enforcement for three decades. Nothing surprises me anymore.”
The initiative is not without its challenges. Church doors are typically open to anybody, leaving them vulnerable to those who would do harm.
“If you saw me on the street, would you know who I was and what I did?” asks Turlington, pointing out that the “everyone is welcome” philosophy does present security issues.
Also, the idea of church security is an idea that takes some getting used to for some church members.
“Are you comfortable with going to church thinking someone else there has a gun?” asks Turlington. “It’s not something we want to think about, but something we need to address.”
Pait agreed, adding, “We know this is an uncomfortable situation. We’re all going to learn together.”
Pait and Turlington will be introducing the program to local clergy on Monday, Feb. 8, at 6:30 p.m. at Elizabethtown Baptist Church on West Broad Street.. The program is expected to take about two hours and is open to any clergy who want to come.
Anyone with questions or needs information can contact Barry Pait at the Sheriff’s Office at 910-862-6960.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.