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Readying the faithful: After shootings, churches prepare for worst

New Hampshire Sunday News

December 02. 2017 10:01PM
The Rev. Jason Wells is executive director of New Hampshire Council of Churches, which is sponsoring shooter response training for clergy and congregations on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)
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It seemed unthinkable: an attack on worshippers inside an American church, the slaughter of innocents.

But after a former airman opened fire inside a Texas church last month, killing 26 people and injuring many more, the unthinkable is no longer impossible.

And a pair of New Hampshire police officers wants to make sure the faithful are ready to defend themselves if it happens here.

Terry Choate Jr. and Joseph Hileman are partners in Blue-U Defense, a company they started three years ago to teach defensive tactics and planning for businesses, schools, hospitals and trade groups.

Now they're getting calls from religious organizations. Since the Texas massacre, Choate said, "We've just been inundated with calls."

Next Saturday, they're offering active shooter response training for New Hampshire churches, sponsored by the New Hampshire Council of Churches at Heritage Baptist Church in Nashua.

A worship service is a vulnerable target, Choate said. "In essence, what you have is a room full of people sitting with their backs to the door."

Terry Choate Jr., left, and Joe Hileman of Blue-U, shown at a church in Indianapolis last week, are bringing active shooter response training to church groups around the country free of charge. The two Jaffrey police officers are offering a training in Nashua on Saturday, Dec. 9, sponsored by the New Hampshire Council of Churches. (Courtesy)

They stress tactics and planning in their seminars. Choate tells folks that when violence erupts, "We need heroes."

Choate previously was a lieutenant in the Jaffrey police department; Hileman was a detective there. Both retired from full-time service earlier this year to pursue their Blue-U business, but remain part-time officers.

The two are Christians; they offer their active shooter response training free of charge to church groups. 

Choate said he's certain the tactics they teach would have saved lives at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 5.

Only three things can end such an incident, Choate said: "Either the bad guy stops themselves, law enforcement stops them, or someone else stops them."

In Texas, he said, "This guy came into this church and everybody basically got down. They hid, and he went from pew to pew to pew, just shooting people with zero resistance."

Responding to violence, Choate said, "takes a mindset change." And he said everyone has to be part of security training, not just a designated few.

"I'm not saying if you hear gunfire, run to that gunfire," he said. "But regardless of where they are, there's always someone who has that chance and that ability."

The Rev. Jason Wells, executive director of the N.H. Council of Churches, said it "hurts our hearts" to think about what happened in Sutherland Springs and at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

Church leaders and members fill the seats at an active shooter training session in Westminster, Md. Faith groups around the country are clamoring for training to defend themselves after deadly church shootings in Texas and South Carolina. (Washington Post/Salwan Georges)

"But these are now common enough that we can't avoid facing the hard questions," he said.

Wells, an Episcopal pastor who previously led congregations in Concord and Manchester, admits the church shootings have changed his own "situational awareness" during worship services. 

He said he thinks of active shooter training in the same vein as other types of disaster planning, such as evacuation in case of a fire.

"If we don't have a plan, fear and panic take over, and when fear and panic take over, we make bad choices and situations get more dangerous than they were before," he said.

Wells said he hopes next Saturday's training teaches participants "to reduce fear, to reduce panic and ... should this happen in a congregation, they have a way of having as much safety and sanity and good decision making as possible."

Last week, Choate and Hileman were in Indianapolis, where 200 people attended their training session for clergy and congregations. Choate said most of the questions they got were about concealed carry.

He said he's not against the idea, but he does have concerns about untrained individuals trying to take on a gunman. "It's the decision making that becomes the most important part of that," he said. "Are these people going to make good decisions? Are they going to draw their weapon at the right time under the right circumstance?"

The same conversation has been going on in church communities here, Wells said.

Earlier this year, New Hampshire lawmakers passed so-called "constitutional carry," meaning no permit is needed to carry a concealed weapon. That led many pastors to wonder if more of their members would be carrying weapons in church, Wells said.

Pastors feel a tension around such issues, Wells said. "We want churches to be open and accessible," he said. "We want them to be places of peace and safety and security that reflect what we experience in God."

"And at the same time ... the answer doesn't sit right in our gut that we turn our churches into fortresses," he said. "We know you can't put up a metal detector or have some version of an air marshal sitting in the pews."

Still, more and more churches nationwide are learning how to protect themselves. At a recent session offered by a Maryland sheriff's department, officials gave tips to a standing-room-only audience that included clergy, choir directors, ushers, organists and Sunday school teachers.

If a gunman enters a church, they were told, throw hymnals at him. Those little pencils in the back of each pew? Use them to stab him in the neck.

"I realize I'm asking people who preach compassion, love and peace to pick up a pen and try to stop a shooter if you have the opportunity," said Sgt. Michael Zepp, a SWAT team leader who led the training.

But, Zepp said, it's the reality of the times. Throwing a hymnal at a shooter, he said, "may not stop him but it may limit the casualties, and it's better than sitting there waiting to get killed."

Choate said readiness has to begin with a culture change. "It starts with believing it can happen to us," he said. "Is it likely to happen to us? No, it isn't. Is it possible it could happen to us? Absolutely.

"And it becomes more and more possible every day."

Choate said some people of faith tell him they don't have to worry about such things, that God will protect them. But he points out, "Christians get cancer."

"Free will creates problems, and we have free will," Choate said. "So we have to make decisions and ... we have to do some work to protect ourselves."

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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