As minister of Hope Tabernacle Church in Forest Park, Rev. Pirsia Allen knows a lot about churches. And after serving 25 years as an officer in the Maywood Police Department, Allen also knows a lot about law enforcement. 

Allen’s personal and professional interests merged April 21 at the “Guarding the Church and Community Conference,” which he helped organize and hosted at his congregation at 7416 Dixon St. In light of recent shootings at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Hope Tabernacle’s three-hour conference focused on informing church leaders on how to keep their worshippers safe.

“Having a plan in place can save your life and the lives of the people in your church,” Allen told the some 25 attendees. He advised congregations to post “No Gun” decals on their church doors so as to avoid liability for injuries caused by gun violence, even when those acts are committed by a non-church member.

Hope Tabernacle will inform its congregation of what to do during an active shooting or robbery on May 20 at 10 a.m. Staff will also educate worshippers on how to evacuate the church, and what to do during an emergency. At least two churches in Forest Park have emergency plans like the one blooming at Hope Tabernacle, although the Forest Park Review is not naming them to protect the safety of all churches. 

At the conference, Maywood Police Chief Valdimir Talley of the Maywood Police Dept. stressed the importance of having an emergency plan—not just in the case of an active shooter, but also in repose to a fire or power outage. He urged attendees to create a trained security group in their congregations, and strongly opposed members carrying firearms. 

“People get a license to carry a gun and think they are a police officer when they don’t have the training,” he said. 

Dr. Carolyn Ransom-Champion, creator of the Urban First Responders program, urged attendees not to “walk to the other side of the street,” but to engage with victims of gun violence. Urban First Responders trains people how to respond to neighbors and church members who have been victims of violence. Champion lost her son to gun violence.

She believes the effects of trauma will inspire victims to commit similar, violent behaviors if not treated, and emphasized that we all have to deal with our own issues before we can hope to help others. 

Karen Saffo, who worships at United Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Maywood, said she felt inspired by Ransom- Champion’s talk about concerned care for trauma victims.

“I learned that there are criminals who need help as well as their victims,” she said. “We’re obligated to make sure that they are saved, in addition to doing their time, so that when they get out of jail, they don’t repeat the same things that put them in prison.” 

She was also reminded to know where the exits in a building are and to make sure her children know what to do.

Attendee Lorenzo Weber said he felt motivated by the conference to go back to Empowerment Church in Melrose Park and make a security plan and train the staff, “so we never have a situation like in Sutherland at our church.”

Dr. C. Calvin Rice, the pastor of Canaan AME Church in Maywood who helped organize the conference said, “now I can go back and make some changes in my own facility for the safety of the people and for the glory of God.”

What to do during an active shooting at church, elsewhere

Charles DuShane, protective security advisor at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and former Secret Service agent at the White House, offered the following tips for how to stay safe to attendees at the “Guarding the Church and Community Conference” on April 21. 

  • Security is an inconvenience—like remembering to not leave doors propped open—but it is a very inexpensive away to secure a building.
  • Parents’ first impulse when there is a fire alarm or active shooter is often to rush to where their children are. That behavior, he said, only makes things worse. It is much better for families to have a rehearsed plan that outlines what to do and where to reunite after fleeing an emergency. 
  • When entering a public building, become aware of where all the exits are.
  • If you see something suspicious, call police.   
  • Church leaders should hold a fire drill after the service one day, so everyone knows what to do in case of emergency. 
  • Have a person designated to always have a phone and call 911 if something happens.

Tom Holmes