The shooting of 26 parishioners Nov. 5 at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, had a profound impact on Gainesville-raised pastor Mark Stroud.
“My first reaction was just sympathy toward the church there in Texas,” said Stroud, a 1992 graduate of Gainesville High School and pastor of Wahoo Baptist Church in North Hall since 2001.
“What an awful tragedy,” he said. “For any church to lose over 20 people of their flock in one moment is just tragic. Children were killed. It’s just terrible.”
Stroud said he had a conversation about the tragedy with members of his congregation in Murrayville. He said the discussion led them to the decision to implement security measures, and that the congregation is all on board with it.
Stroud said he’s made arrangements with a Georgia organization equipped and licensed to train individuals, workplaces and even churches how to use firearms, and techniques for thwarting attacks as happened at Sutherland Springs and other mass shootings throughout the nation.
“What happened in Texas is a wake-up call to us as leadership to make sure we’re doing everything we can to prevent a similar tragedy in our own church,” Stroud said.
For the Rev. Brian Evans, pastor of Oakwood Baptist Church in Flowery Branch, the wake-up call for him came after the Charleston, S.C., shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 18, 2015. During that racially motivated incident, convicted assailant Dylann Roof walked in and sat down with his unsuspecting victims during a Wednesday night Bible study. After many minutes went by, he got up and opened fire, killing nine members of the congregation, including the pastor who also was a state senator.
Evans described the shooting in Texas as a distressing trend.
“You know, one of the tragic things that happened in Sutherland Springs was that there was no one there who could stop (the shooter),” Evans said. “You know, our doors are open. We want everybody to come and everybody is welcome here, We don’t ever want to change that. We would never change that, but at the same time, if someone comes here with evil intentions, we feel it is our duty to our people to have something in place to keep them safe.
“It may or may not work, but we’ll certainly take our chances that it will minimize the damage. We pray every week that we never see that happen or have a need for that.”
The Times reached out to other local pastors who declined to talk about the issue.
Rodney “Chief” Smith, the founder and CEO of Georgia Firearms and Security Training Academy in Flowery Branch, said he trained members of Evans’ congregation who are licensed to carry concealed weapons, and will do the same with Stroud’s congregation.
As often happens in the wake of a tragic shooting as occurred at Sutherland Springs, Smith said his firm gets a flurry of calls.
“It’s like a knee-jerk reaction,” said Smith, a retired U.S, Navy Chief with 24 years of military service and who worked 13 years in law enforcement. “The phone rings off the hook when something happens as it did in Texas, then it’s back to normal until some other tragic event takes place.”
Smith said he’s also been hired by the Rev. Ken Anderson of Canaan Baptist Church in Gainesville and other churches, one as far away as Pennsylvania, for such training. Smith said he trains church members in active shooter scenarios and situational awareness.
“We try to train them to where they see the trouble before it materializes,” Smith said.
Stroud and Evans said they started re-thinking security measures at their churches after Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law the Georgia Safe Carry Protection Act in 2014. The law allows residents who have concealed carry permits to take guns virtually anywhere, including churches.
“When we learned the governor had signed the law that people could carry in church concealed weapons with the permission of the pastor, I realized I already had a dozen or more people here who were carrying,” Evans said.
However, Evans said it was not enough to have people in church who were armed. He wanted to make sure they and the congregation at large knew how to respond in a real emergency, which is why he brought in Smith to train them.
“Anybody can carry a gun; not everybody knows how to use one effectively, especially under pressure,” Evans said.
Stroud said a friend who is a pastor recommended Smith to him.
“There doesn’t seem to be a safe place anymore,” Stroud said. “We’re trying to implement some security measures and train our folks in the event something similar to what happened in Texas were to happen here, we make sure we do our best to protect our church family.”