Church security in Northeast Mississippi strikes balance

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

To gain entrance to the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Tupelo, visitors must approach the door beside the chapel.
There they will find a brushed steel call box, mounted with a speaker and a video, that may look out of place against the church’s castle-like architecture. Through the call box, the visitor is able to call the church office to disengage the electronic lock and allow them inside.
“We want to keep the church safe, the same way as a household,” said Carson Overstreet, assistant pastor for young adults and outreach at First Presbyterian.
Being a downtown church, First Presbyterian sees more foot traffic than rural churches or churches found in tight-knit communities. While this allows for effective methods of outreach, it also exposes the church to the dangers of the real world.
Overstreet said it was important for the church not to project fear, but the church has an obligation to keep its congregation safe, especially children who attend the church’s preschool. Speaking to the financial side of the church, thefts and repairs ultimately come out of the congregation’s pocket in the form of their tithes.
“The way to keep our treasures safe and remain a welcoming church isn’t by being naive, it’s by being smart,” she said. “Our neighbors are our guests, and we can balance security while also extending the gospel as long as we operate in the spirit of hospitality.”
Overstreet recalled living in a suburban community prior to moving to Tupelo, and even there neighborhood watch organizations cautioned people to not take their security for granted.
“They told us to lock our doors and not leave our garages unattended,” she said. “It was a way of keeping honest people honest by providing as little opportunity as possible for temptation.”
First Presbyterian is hardly the only downtown church that is up to date on security measures. All Saints’ Episcopal Church, suffered a string of break-ins before the opening of its new building in 2007.
The Rev. Paul Stephens, All Saints’ rector, said since then there have been no incidents. He attributes the clean record to the rapport the church has built with the needy community through its ministry, Saints’ Brew, which provides a warm meal five days a week.
“We aren’t just helping people, we are developing relationships with those in need. We know who they are as people and they know us,” he said. “But we are also clear in establishing boundaries as well as appropriate behavior for guests.”
Stephens said biblical stories of hospitality, such as the good Samaritan parable, have shaped the way God’s people respond to one another, and those habits were carried through the New Testament all the way up to today. Because of the concentrated area of churches downtown, the burden of the needy can be shared among them.
“I’m not sure other churches receive the day-to-day volume of people looking for help that we have,” he said. “Many people make the rounds trying to cobble help together however they can, living in crisis day after day. As a church we have to have boundaries for them and we have to know our own boundaries in terms of what we are and are not capable of.”
Different locations present a different set of challenges, even for those not as centrally located, such as Redoak Missionary Baptist Church, located south of Eason Boulevard on Veterans Memorial. Since taking the pulpit of Redoak in March 2011, the Rev. Jeffrey Gladney has come to rely on the close community surrounding the church to look after it.
“Most of our members live in a 10 to 15 mile radius of the church. The houses on either side are occupied by members of our church, so someone always has an eye out,” he said.
Gladney said a few months ago, some red flags were raised as cars were tampered with during the service. Though no more harm was done than a few gas caps being opened, it caused the church to consider security measures.
“We thought about installing cameras, but instead we have greeters who stay vigilant, stay aware of the congregation’s attitude, and be ahead of the curve in case something happens, be it a fire or anything” he said. “Awareness has been our biggest asset, and when we do have new members we get to know them with a welcoming spirit.”
Gladney said he most frequently encounters thieves pilfering for scrap metal from the surrounding metal yard. He said that instead of breaking into a church for an expensive sound system, they go for copper parts in outside air conditioning units.
“People are in very real need in this economy. We are doing the best we can in the times we are in, and for someone trying to put food on the table, drastic measures may be taken,” he said. “We can’t lock out those who are seeking God for real answers to tough problems. We have to care for people, because that’s what we are called to do and if the church’s neighbors haven’t bought into the church, they aren’t going to care what happens to it.”
The Rev. Donny Riley of Oak Hill United Methodist Church in Saltillo also blames hard times for an increased occurrence of burglaries. Oak Hill’s rural location is a testament to the far-reaching impact of the economic recession.
During his 9-year tenure at Oak Hill, the church has suffered only one incident; three iPhones stolen from three different cars during the Sunday morning service.
“It’s funny, because that’s all they stole. They left purses, one car even had a gun in the glove compartment that wasn’t touched,” Riley said. “I guess they figured people leave their phones and purses in the car so they don’t fool with them in church, and they know everyone is going to be occupied for an hour, not coming and going like at the mall or a supermarket.”
Riley said his congregation was appalled that such a thing could happen, but kept a positive attitude.
“There’s an old story about John Wesley [founder of Methodism], that he was robbed one night and went back and thanked God that he wasn’t hurt, and that he wasn’t the robber, and asked God to come into that man’s life,” he said. “That’s the attitude our church takes.”
Since then, Donny said the Saltillo Police Department has been faithful in patrolling the church, cruising by periodically on Sundays. In a small town, strange vehicles are quickly noticed and new faces are quickly welcomed. He said he and his church are fortunate to have roots in Northeast Mississippi, when compared to the problems inner city churches face.
“Tupelo has been very fortunate in its leadership. Industry around here is thriving and has made jobs available, which helps,” he said. “Our church doesn’t feel like people are out to get them, and we pray for those who do things like that. We have to help the needy and do our best to not be taken advantage of ourselves. When something does happen, it’s best to take it in stride and not get riled up.”
riley.manning@journalinc.com