HOLMES COUNTY - Local churches are evaluating safety and security for parishioners in the wake of the horrific mass shooting that took place at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas Nov. 5, in which at least 26 people - ranging in age from 5 to 72 - were killed and 20 more were wounded. Today, the sanctuary has been transformed into a memorial to the victims.
With the Sutherland Springs victims making up about 4 percent of the unincorporated community's population of 600, the tragedy especially hit home in Holmes County, where most of county's more than 50 churches are located in rural communities.
"That is everyone's nightmare," said Pastor Michael Tadlock of New Smyrna Assembly of God in Bonifay. "It has us rethinking a lot of things concerning church safety. I want [New Smyrna] to be a place people can come and safely worship without fear. It's sad that we're living in a day where we have to take measures, but in light of everything that happened in Texas, I don't see how any church or pastor can not be proactive."
Tadlock is one of several local church leaders consulting with Holmes County Sheriff John Tate and the Holmes County Sheriff's Office to evaluate and improve security.
"We're offering security assessments to any interested church," said Sheriff Tate. "We will come out to talk to the church members or security teams, discuss the layout of the church and things they can do to make it safer, as well as go over any questions they may have."
About five churches have already booked the free security assessment with HCSO.
"We hope it never happens here, but we want to always be prepared," said Tate. "Being prepared isn't a bad thing; we just hope we never have to put those plans into action."
When asked to weigh in on the debate of permitted parishioners carrying firearms into sanctuaries, Tate said while he supports the Second Amendment right of citizens to lawfully carry guns where permitted, he strongly urges church members to discuss the issue with the church leaders.
"On one hand, many believe church is a holy place, and guns should not be allowed; however we understand times have changed, and the world isn't as safe as it once was. Ultimately, this issue is best discussed with the pastor and leadership team. The individual church should decide what to do to protect its members, and we will stand by whatever decision that is."
According to a study by the Center for Homicide Research, there were a total of 139 shootings on church properties in the U.S. with a combined death toll of 189 from 1980 to 2005, averaging about six shootings every year.
About 24 more church shootings occurred from the end of that study to June 17, 2015 - the day of the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
New Smyrna Assembly of God was proactive prior to this month's shooting, having previously asked HCSO to present an active shooter training, and also having already put some security measures in place.
"The two important things for me are that everyone who attends New Smyrna Assembly of God is safe and that they feel safe," said Pastor Tadlock. "But I'm a pastor, not law enforcement, so that is why I'm turning to members who are in law enforcement and Sheriff Tate for resources. We have to be prepared on our own because if something happens, by time the call goes out, you could be looking at a number of minutes before help arrives. We want to be sure our congregation is protected. The Bible says to be as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves, and I believe that's what the security team should be - quietly standing by as the work of the Lord goes forward, which is our mission."
To request a security assessment, contact HCSO at 850-547-4421.