On Sunday afternoon, we had an Active Shooter Training led by members of the Madison Police Department. It took several months to coordinate our calendars, so it was sheer coincidence that it occurred on the Sunday when the gospel reading began, “…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” (John 20:19) but the contrast between the content of the afternoon’s presentation and the gospel text couldn’t have been more extreme.
To be honest, I was quite uncomfortable with the whole idea. When I heard other clergy discussing such trainings last fall in the aftermath of the Texas mass shooting, I was surprised, shocked, and saddened. I wondered why anyone would do such a thing. Not only do weapons not belong in houses of worship, but as people of peace and love, to discuss what might happen and how to respond to a mass shooting seemed inappropriate, even unfaithful to God and to the witness we are called to be in the world.
But as I continued mulling it over, and as the mass shootings continued to occur, it seemed more and more important that we think the unthinkable. Given our prominent location opposite the State Capitol, the possibility that we might be a random target of such an event is hardly unthinkable.
With a food pantry and men’s homeless shelter on site, in the center of Madison’s downtown, Grace staff and volunteers deal regularly with difficult situations during the week and on Sundays. It’s easy to imagine someone experiencing substance abuse or mental illness might suddenly pull out a weapon in a confrontation. And as mass shootings have become more commonplace, it seemed to me an unfortunate necessity in contemporary life, especially for churches, the sort of training we need to provide for staff and volunteers.
My uneasy feeling going into the training was deepened when the instructor started out by talking about the importance of visualizing such events in daily life. He suggested that when we enter a restaurant, we should locate emergency exits and escape routes. It struck me then that doing so would require that I reorient my perspective on the world, that I look at my environment as fraught with peril at every turn. I had a visceral, overly negative reaction to that suggestion. To walk through the world with my senses focused on danger seems not only an overreaction to the possibility of catastrophe but would also rewire my brain to avoid risk or new experiences.
As the afternoon progressed, I continued to struggle with the training and with my response to the content that was being presented. There were some useful tips, or, should I say, some helpful suggestions on how to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter. Addressing our likely responses in such situations (duck and cover, run away, or run toward gun shots) and helping us strategize better, more effective responses was really quite helpful. The afternoon also included some first aid tips and self-defense.
I came away from the afternoon feeling like we had made the right decision in offering the training. To have even a few staff members and volunteers who might have learned some things that could help in emergency situations is an important step.. But at the same time, I was both angry and disheartened that such training is increasingly a necessity in our culture. We require volunteers and staff to participate in sexual abuse and sexual harassment training, and if our political culture doesn’t change, it’s likely that active shooter trainings will become commonplace for communities of faith.
But at what cost? Will the message of fear and preparedness inoculate us against the gospel of love and peace? Bible verses ran through my head throughout the afternoon: “Perfect love casts out fear;” “Be wise as serpent and gentle as doves;” “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” What is the appropriate stance for followers of Jesus in our climate of fear and our violent culture?
In a way, to prepare for the unthinkable, as our instructor called it, is just further down the continuum from our usual preparedness. We balance our openness to the community with a need to provide safe space and security for our members and visitors. Our doors may be open on Sundays to all, but we have policies and procedures in place to address difficult situations and challenging behaviors. I’ve had to call the police more than once to deal with a disruptive situation. At the same time, we try to welcome anyone who does walk through our doors, offering them respite, whatever food we might have available, a friendly smile or conversation.
To be prepared, but not fearful, aware but not anxious, welcoming, open, and watchful. Perhaps this is the appropriate perspective to maintain when we don’t know whether the next active shooter event will occur inside, or outside of our doors.