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‘Churches have to be on alert:’ How Orlando area religious leaders keep houses of worship a safe haven

Local churches, synagogues react to recent attacks in New York, Texas

ORLANDO, Fla. – On the eve of what will be one of the Calvary City Church’s biggest services of the year, Pastor Gabriel Salguero explained to News 6 how they plan to keep more than 4,000 guests safe on New Year’s Eve.

"It's one of the most highly attended worship services of the year," Salguero said. "I think churches have to be on alert."

On high alert, especially just one day after video shows a gunman stormed the West Freeway Church of Christ in the town of White Settlement in Texas.

Authorities say firearms instructor, Jack Wilson, who volunteered and trained others at the church to use guns to protect the congregation fired a single shot, quickly ending the attack that killed two people. More than 240 congregants were in the church at the time.

An officer walks near the scene after a church shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019 in White Settlement, Texas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
An officer walks near the scene after a church shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019 in White Settlement, Texas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP) (© {iptcyear4} Juan Figueroa / The Dallas Morning News)

According to Salguero, they have something similar in place at Calvary City Church.

“I think the Texas church is a prime example of what many churches are doing now, in light of so many shootings and soft targets,” Salguero said. “For a long time, Calvary City Church has had a security team trained with live shooting drills, having law enforcement come in here.”

He said the church has a volunteer team of about 15 men and women who make up the Safety and Order Ministry. Like Wilson, many of them are law enforcement or retired military and all of them are trained. Salguero said the church has partnered with the Orlando Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security to provide active shooter drills for the security team.

“It’s really tragic that it’s gotten to this point that people need security details in the most holiest of places on the highest of holy days,” he said. “Our primary task is to worship God but also to keep our members and worshipers safe.”

Salguero also pointed out some cameras installed throughout the church, some hidden, some in plain sight. He also said some of the members of the security team are visible while others are not.

“They are members of the church, they are part of the community, they worship with the community," the pastor said. "So some Sundays they are on security details and some Sundays they are with parishioners.”

Despite the recent shooting in Texas, these practices are not new. Salguero said they’ve been in place for a few years.

The same goes for the Congregation Ohev Shalom, a synagogue in Maitland.

Rabbi David Kay said they’ve had a hired security guard for a few years now, and recently, after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, they added a second guard to cover services.

“We are not going to be a fortress at least not visible on the outside,” Kay said. “But we are certainly going to take those steps we need to take when people set foot through those doors.”

For safety reasons, places of worship can’t disclose those details. However, Kay said their staff has also been trained for emergency situations.

Orthodox Jewish people listen to N.Y. state Assemblyman Dov Hikind speak in Monsey, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, following a stabbing late Saturday during a Hanukkah celebration. A man attacked the celebration at a rabbi's home north of New York City late Saturday, stabbing and wounding several people before fleeing in a vehicle, police said. (AP Photo/Allyse Pulliam)
Orthodox Jewish people listen to N.Y. state Assemblyman Dov Hikind speak in Monsey, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, following a stabbing late Saturday during a Hanukkah celebration. A man attacked the celebration at a rabbi's home north of New York City late Saturday, stabbing and wounding several people before fleeing in a vehicle, police said. (AP Photo/Allyse Pulliam)

This comes after a string of violent attacks on the Jewish community in New York.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said there have been 13 anti-Semitic attacks in New York since Dec. 8. Most recently, authorities say a man carried out an attack at a rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration.

According to authorities, Grafton Thomas stormed into the home with a machete and stabbed and injured five people. On Monday, he faced federal hate crime charges for the attack.

“Unfortunately there have been Jews targeted not only for hate speech and verbal attacks but physical assaults, as well and deadly assaults,” Kay said. “We not only have our kinship, our people, it’s part of our community, but we recognize that kind of assault can happen anywhere at any time.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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