AUSTIN, Texas - A house of worship, a sanctuary, a place for peace and healing, the last place you would ever expect acts of extreme violence, but, after an attack at a small church 75 miles away from Austin, several church leaders are rethinking just how safe their facility really is.
“It doesn't happen in our neighborhood and our community and it just did,” said Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody.
Last legislative session, a bill was passed allowing churches to use volunteers or private security officers to keep their parishioners safe.
Some larger churches quickly jumped on board, hiring security guards, but after Sunday’s shooting, several smaller churches seem to be interested in beefing up security as well.
After learning about the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Chody offered to hold a security summit for any church leadership interested and he said several area churches have already responded.
“You're having more churches now having an interest in looking for that help and aid, from law enforcement in this case, to get them started and that's what we're trying to do,” Chody said.
Chody said there are several options for churches wanting to increase safety. Whether they implement a program providing a designated armed volunteer or a security team will be their call, but Chody hopes by training for an attack, church leaders won't be caught off guard if one does occur.
“You will react the way you train, if you train regularly, and that's part of the idea behind this process,” said Chody.
Steve Ou works with BSG Security, which provides guards to some Austin-area churches. He said while everyone's heads are bowed, it helps to have one person in the room who is looking for suspicious activity and can respond quickly.
“Potential threats can present themselves very apparent from the approach, as it appears this one was, walking up with a rifle with military gear, whereas, maybe someone might not present themselves as a threat till once they're inside,” Ou said.
But some Austin churches want nothing to do with increased security.
“Do we live constantly in fear of will this happen to us? Could this happen to us? I think we have to live out of hope and we cannot fear that this could happen to us,” said Associate Pastor Kim Smith-Stanley of Central Presbyterian Church.
Associate Pastor Kim Smith-Stanley said Central Presbyterian Church decided they would not allow concealed carry permit holders to bring a gun inside their gates and that is not going to change.
“The church is a place of peace and it would be really hard for me to feel that there was a way for me to justify that in our congregation,” Smith-Stanley said.
Sheriff Chody said if that's the case, church leaders have to ask themselves a very difficult question.
“If you chose not to use that option, what is your other option? And have you done everything you can to equip your staff, your people to protect your parishioners? And if you haven't, you've failed,” said Chody.
Smith-Stanley said she would like to focus more on preventing attacks to begin with. She cites better access to mental healthcare and sensible gun laws as the best way to do that.