Long before the recent shootings and attacks against houses of faith in New York City, Texas and other parts of the U.S., District officials have been working with religious leaders to ensure that they’re prepared for any types of violence or terrorism targeting local communities of faith.
In August Mayor Muriel Bowser approved $2.5 million in security and preparedness grants for faith-based, non-profit organizations in the District to support efforts for planning, training and other security-related initiatives.
“These grants are one more way we can advance D.C. values and take proactive steps to strengthen security at our places of worship,” Bowser said. “Coupled with the work of our Interfaith Preparedness and Advisory Group, grants like these will help us ensure residents and visitors feel safe throughout the District — especially in our places of worship.”
Nineteen District non-profit groups receive the maximum award of $100,000 used to purchase physical security enhancements including cameras, new doors, locks, gates and security personnel. Twenty-six District nonprofits also received grants to enhance security at their facilities with 22 of the recipients first-time awardees.
The Rev. Thomas Bowen, director of the Mayors Office of Religious Affairs, said while District congregations have received grants there’s more work to do.
“We encourage more congregations to be active and vigilant,” he said.
The grants, managed through the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency [HSEMA], fall under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP).
In 2019, Bowser launched the Interfaith Preparedness and Advisory Group — a joint effort between the Mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs, the Metropolitan Police Department and HSEMA that provides greater collaboration among the District’s faith-based communities.
“The ability to conduct physical threat assessments and share personal preparedness resources within their communities could be the difference in preventing another tragedy,” said HSEMA Director Dr. Christopher Rodriguez. “Building a more resilient community is our agency’s top priority and our partnerships with the faith-based community are invaluable.”
With recently-released reports indicating an 18-year high in anti-Semitic crimes in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, D.C. officials have become even more aggressive in responding to incidents of or complaints about violent acts or related threats, continuing monthly meetings for the sharing of vital information at places like Metropolitan AME Church in Northwest.
The Rev. Donald Robinson, assistant to the pastor, the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C. in Northwest, noted the improvements to security employed by the historic house of worship located a mere nine blocks from the White House.
“We started a security team and we have people both inside and outside of the church to protect our members and visitors,” he said. “We also have law enforcement officials in our church who provide a greater modicum of security.”
Meanwhile, some houses of faith, like West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, have ramped up security with members armed with weapons following the recent shooting in December that left two members dead before a volunteer security guard killed the assailant.
Robinson, who serves as the chairperson for the church’s Wednesday Clergy Fellowship, said, “In different jurisdictions different things work and different people have different needs. But ever since the South Carolina shooting, we have been talking.”
The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Northwest, says while her church has become concerned about safety, they also want to make sure people feel welcome.
“We are not paranoid — what we are is vigilant and prayerful,” she said. “We don’t adhere to the policy of churches like West Freeway that encourages its members bringing weapons to church. That’s not a good optic. We’re not going [in that direction].”
The Rev. Ianther Mills, pastor, Asbury United Methodist Church (UMC) in Northwest, pointed to current initiatives employed by her denomination.
“The UMC already follows strategies like our Active Shooter Plan which includes the use of security guards for special events and activities,” she said. “We’ve experienced recent incidents at the church that have led us to the conclusion that we need to step up our security to having an off-duty MPD officer available during the worship hour and we’re working on getting that in place.”
Churches, groups or organizations interested in receiving information about enhancing security can contact John Mein, HSEMA’s program manager, at 202-815-8780.