Worship centers, sacred spaces and religious groups sometimes have difficulty balancing a sense of welcome with wariness.

What’s to fear? Religious groups find themselves in the position of securing valuables, protecting spaces from vandalism and ensuring visitors aren’t accosted.

The world has changed in a way that means we don’t necessarily know every person with whom we share a pew. Worship centers that were once nestled in residential areas and watched over by neighbors now find themselves on busy streets, next door to businesses or even vacant lots. It’s increasingly likely a congregation will need to discuss surveillance systems, perform security risk assessments and purchase insurance riders to address issues like training members as first responders in violent attacks.

We have learned this violence touches religious groups regardless of specific beliefs. Making spaces safe is a significant undertaking for leaders of the nation’s three largest religions.

First, there is the size and scope of such a task. USA Today reports there are more than 2,100 mosques nationwide. There are 3,700 synagogues and another 350 Jewish community centers and camps in the United States and Canada, according to the American Jewish Committee. Sociologist Simon Brauer used National Congregations Study data to estimate there are 384,000 churches.

That’s a lot to protect from the dangers of the world.

Last month, a teenager opened fire on 54 people attending Passover services at San Diego’s Chabad synagogue, killing one. The gunman also is suspected of arson at Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido, Calif.

In late October, Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was the scene of a deadly attack that resulted in 11 deaths. And from 1999 to 2018, there have been 18 fatal church shootings, according to Carl Chinn, a church security expert. The deadliest occurred in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed.

Changing habits and neighborhoods put congregants on alert, too. Some congregations maintain tight security to mitigate theft, damage and assault.

This doesn’t jive with the way we think about attending a worship service or wedding. Religious and faith communities strive to cultivate an atmosphere of hospitality. There are articles, experts, books, mystery shoppers, seminars and a host of other tools to help leaders.

Security resources are just as plentiful. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, insurance companies and Christian denominations offer a plethora of materials.

After the recent synagogue shootings, congregations nationwide provide members with weekly threat management training sessions. Rodef Shalom, the largest synagogue in western Pennsylvania, increased the number of panic buttons installed throughout the building from 9 to more than 50, reports WITF-TV.

In addition, there are security cameras, two security guards present during hours of operation and visitors may be searched.

Even without all those concerns, hospitality is hard; we don’t necessarily know what others need to feel welcome.

Effusive people might believe everyone wants a big, showy welcome. Introverted folks may believe a low-key, less-is-more approach is the way to go.

I approach it from the perspective of process improvement: If you belong and know your way around, you must accept that it will be tough for you to empathize with a newcomer.

It’s not impossible. It starts with deciding to look at something in a different way. What would make me feel out of place if I were visiting for the first time? Are there elements that make me feel uncomfortable and on display? What would a visitor think of your parking lot? Would the visitor understand where the “front door” is located? Is it locked? Is there someone there to open it? Are there clear, understandable signs and markers for all the things a visitors might not know or understand? Do you regularly remind members to actively welcome visitors?

Karris Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at onfaith@karrisgolden.com.


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