Jul. 6, 2013 9:35 PM
Jeffery Gilchriest keeps his eye on Sunday mornings services at the Freedom Christian Center in Viera. Jeffery has been working security at the church for the last two years and a member for 13. / Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today
VIERA — It is Sunday and 36-year-old Julie Robinson is keeping an eye on her children as they play and sing near the front of the sanctuary stage at Freedom Christian Center.
The mother of four is not the only one watching. Quietly standing in the back of the hall is Jeffery Gilchriest.
As dozens of congregants lift their hands in prayer, preparing for the week’s message from the pulpit, Gilchriest’s eyes are alert, darting across the spacious worship hall.
A white, coiled microphone wire ripples from his ear to help him communicate with ushers and plainclothes security personnel.
Their mission: Protecting the flock by being ready for the worst.
“This is the norm in our world’s culture and there’s a need for security wherever we go nowadays,” said Gilchriest, who oversees security efforts at Freedom Christian and also is the CEO of Opaque Security, an international company that trains churches and synagogues to protect congregations. “We need to be prepared.”
It is an increasingly common sentiment in churches, synagogues and mosques nationwide as the number of deadly episodes at sanctuaries has soared over the last decade, and mass shootings at elementary schools, malls and movie theaters have left Americans feeling like it could happen anywhere.
Just last month, the federal government stepped in with a first-ever report outlining security recommendations for houses of worship. The 38-page plan, released just days after a man was shot and wounded during a Catholic Mass in Salt Lake City, advises congregations to plan for potential emergencies, including what police call random “active shooter” situations. Among the advice offered by the federal government: run, hide or, as a last resort, fight.
“I think we’re seeing all of this for multiple reasons. Whenever there is a violent situation, we see security beefed up. Schools, for example, have become more hardened targets. And as we see other places get more readiness, that means other places like churches and ministries become softer targets,” said Colorado church security consultant Carl Chinn, who holds training seminars for churches across the country.
In 1999, there were 22 violent deaths -- including homicides and suicides -- reported at worship centers nationwide, according to statistics compiled by Chinn. Last year, there were 115 attacks, with 75 of those ending in a fatality, he said.
Ministers say increased training is important as sanctuaries have expanded their roles over the years, going from small church houses where worshipers sought solace from the outside world to larger facilities offering schools, exercise classes or even game rooms.
“It’s absolutely horrible but it’s a reality. Why are these things happening? That’s the age old question, a spiritual question,” said Craig Nau, an associate pastor at Freedom Christian Center.
“Jesus said that there would be troubles but he also said for us not to let our hearts get troubled. Having security protocols allows us to think things through, to be alert and all of that comes out of a place of prayer.”
In many churches, ushers still are the frontline of security, with many spotting distraught worshipers or stepping in during minor disputes. Other congregations have no systematic way of knowing or watching who walks through the doors.
At Calvary Chapel, a dedicated team of about 30 to 40 plainclothes volunteers are tasked with protecting the 10,000 people who crowd into the church’s primary campuses in West Melbourne, Viera and Sebastian each weekend for services. Last month, the team met with Chinn for a training session.
“You never know who may come to your facility but if you’re visiting us, you learn early on that there are a few people who are paying attention and watching the crowds. And we do have armed people in the services,” said John Lucas, the chief security officer for the church.
Lucas said that several of his security personnel, equipped with two-way earpieces, are licensed to carry guns and do.
“We haven’t seen many problems,” he said.
Some church leaders are reluctant to discuss security measures but point to a long tradition of pastors preaching faith but also carrying guns.
Florida law allows people to carry weapons in houses of worship.
That means worshipers like Wendy Butcher, a National Rifle Association-certified weapons trainer, freely carries her handgun with her when she goes to services at New Life Christian Fellowship and other congregations in Titusville.
“It’s like putting on make-up or panty hose. I know a lot of people who carry (their guns) to church,” said Butcher, adding that people should always be aware of their surroundings.
“You can’t live your life being in fear. This way, I know that I can protect myself. Each case is situational but if there is someone in a church shooting and I’m standing nearby, you can bet I’d take them out in a heartbeat.”
Security experts also point to a growing hostility toward differing beliefs as one of the reasons for the trend of violence aimed at houses of worship.
“It wasn’t too many years ago that even gangs respected church grounds,” Chinn said. “Now we’re seeing more incidents,” from violent disputes between congregants that break out during services to break-ins, assaults and other crimes.
In Brevard County, there have been sporadic — but isolated — outburts of violence.
The incidents include a January 2012 after-school brawl between a juveniles playing football on Calvary Chapel grounds. In 2002, a 59-year-old Catholic priest at Our Saviour Catholic Church in Cocoa Beach was beaten at the church. In 2006, a gunman fired on the Islamic Society of Brevard mosque.
For Robinson, coming to church is a time to reconnect spiritually with God and to provide her family with a foundation of faith. Unlike Butcher, she doesn’t carry a gun but is glad the church has a security team.
It “makes me feel very safe as a mom of four children,” she said. “They’re looking out for things that I may not see when we’re just coming for church.”