By Rev. Greg Klimovitz
When church buildings are utilized as public gathering spaces, congregations are afforded tremendous opportunities to engage their local communities. This openness also increases the need for regular conversations about safety and the readiness to respond to potential emergency situations. Over the last year, the faithful of Elkins Park Presbyterian Church have recognized the urgency of these conversations and committed to ensure their space cultivates not only hospitality and welcome in Abington Township, but also an environment of responsibility and sanctuary for congregants and visitors alike.
The intentionality of the Elkins Park Presbyterian Church (EPPC), located a block away from a public school, fire department, and Second Alarmers Rescue Squad, has led to their designation as the emergency evacuation site for local schools, coordination of situational awareness and CPR trainings, full-scale inspections of their building for safety and accessibility, and even the conduction of a fire drill at the end of worship this past Pentecost. Each of these measures was pursued in light of Elkins Park’s theological commitment to love their neighbors as themselves. “If you are going to come here as a new worshiper, you want to feel safe, that you could bring your children. If you are an ailing adult or your spouse is in a wheelchair, you do not want to feel that the space is unwelcoming,” remarked Rev. Cynthia Betz-Bogoly, pastor of EPPC and certified EMT. “It is this combination of safety and welcome- our conversations [as a congregation] are often that way. How is this safe, efficient, appropriate, and shows hospitality?”
As the leadership continued to affirm their desire to be open to their neighbors, EPPC also recognized the variable risks that could jeopardize this intentional balance of safety and welcome. Many of the risks they encountered were related to their physical structure and required greater knowledge about a potential evacuation of the premises in the event of an emergency. This was especially important to the EPPC congregation, as many of their members and visitors have physical disabilities. In efforts to be hospitable to all God’s children, Rev. Betz-Bogoly contacted the local police department for a free inspection of their property and the development of a comprehensive report related to their building’s ease of access, egress, and other safety measures. The findings led to both minor and more involved enhancements to their physical space that enabled their witness both to congregation and the broader community to be more inclusive and responsible.
In addition to the safety of their physical building, EPPC also became increasingly aware of how all congregations are vulnerable to intruders due to being an intersection point for varied relationships among congregants, families, local residents, employees, and other patrons on their premises. As a church that hosts community programs, a daycare, and serves as an election polling place, EPPC was moved to tap into the relationships they have with local school administrators and first responders, some who are church members, to empower, equip, and educate leaders to recognize and respond to potential threats. While there is a temptation for congregations to be on the offensive related to these security measures, Rev. Betz Bogoly noted how local law enforcement urged the congregation instead to develop discernment tools to be situationally aware. “Houses of worship should not be equipped to go to battle,” Rev. Betz-Bogoly remarked. “They are to be aware [and] to be hospitable.”
This approach of responsible awareness has led to thoughtful trainings of ushers, greeters, program leaders, and members of session in efforts to increase their collective ability to recognize and respond to potential dangers in both low and highly trafficked occasions. “I have always thought of our church facilities as a place for worship and fellowship,” added Phyllis Sharman, ruling elder and property chairperson at EPPC. “Now I also think about how I can keep people safe when they are here.” These situational awareness trainings have also helped to reduce potential responses to visitors and circumstances out of angst, ignorance, prejudice, and implicit bias, further testaments to EPPC’s commitment to safety and hospitality. “If I am supposed to care for the people of God, then part of that caring is ensuring that the place that I am inviting them to worship, fellowship, and study is safe and not of danger to them,” added Rev. Betz-Bogoly. “It is a place that is not only physically safe, but also that feels socially and culturally safe and is a place where they would want others to come.”
As our congregations continue to open their places of worship and recreational facilities to the public, the witness of Elkins Park Presbyterian Church reminds us of the call to safety as an extension of hospitality. Our willingness to prepare for potential emergencies in our highly trafficked premises and assure our most sacred spaces are accessible to all proclaims the good news that in the church everyone is welcome and their lives valued. In this way, the church is able to offer a more holistic invitation not only to members of the congregation, but also and especially local neighbors in search of safe space to worship, play, and participate in the life of the faith community.
Practical Steps for Churches to Improve Safety and Awareness as Suggested by EPPC:
- Annual planned fire drills as part of worship
- Annual walks through the building and property by session and relevant church leadership to explore safety measures
- Contact local police department and inquire about free building inspections for safety and security
- Develop a list of church members who are trained in varied emergency responses who could be contacted in the event of an emergency. Make public to leadership.
- Develop intentional relationships with local schools, emergency responders, and public officials to make church available in the event of an emergency within the community.
- Host situational awareness trainings, CPR trainings, and other pertinent educational opportunities to equip and empower congregational and community leaders.
- Frame safety and security as an extension of our commitment to the gospel and care and concern for our neighbors, especially those most vulnerable in the event of an emergency.
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