When Michael Hestir visited Alive in Christ Lutheran Church earlier this month, he wasn't there to worship. He was there to help churchgoers prepare for a possible emergency.
Hestir, a sergeant of the Columbia Police Department, has been going to churches around Boone County for the past five years to raise awareness on church violence and how to act.
In the past decade, America has seen an increase in people coming into church buildings and taking lives.
According to FBI data, in 2002, 10 mass casualties occurred in church buildings. Last year, a total of 115 took place. The FBI uses the term mass casualties to refer to shootings, bombings or stabbings.
Hestir said population growth – having an additional one billion people around since 2000 – leads to this increase in church incidents.
“I think it goes back to one percent of the population is more prone to violence and harming other people. We have seven billion people on the planet now. That’s a lot of people,” Hestir said.
A Columbia officer since 1992, Hestir also points to the problem that people simply want to gain attention.
“It gets notoriety from the press and the media, and some part of the motivation to carry out such an act is you’ll be remembered and famous. Like people know who Jesse James was… we don’t know who his next door neighbor was who got up every day and went to work and supported his family,” he said.
Jan Hoemman, who has been part of Alive in Christ for 21 years, said violence does not just start and end with churches.
“I think there’s an increase in violence in all sectors of society, and the church is not immune to it. You know, I think it’s everywhere," she said. "I don’t think that churches are targeted more than schools or places of business."
But the FBI has been dealing with calls from churches – and other houses of worship – more. According to the National Organization of Church Society and Safety Management’s latest statistics, in 2008, more than 24 thousand crimes occurred in religious buildings. Of those crimes, 81 are reported incidents of weapon law violations. This includes churches, synagogues and temples. The organization received this information from the FBI.
With such these numbers in mind, Hestir goes to churches so they are ready to act if an armed intruder enters their building during a regular Sunday service.
“It’s kind of like getting a flu shot," he said. "You know, if you get a flu vaccine, your body recognizes some of the danger and starts preparing. So when the real flu shows up, you don’t get sick. And what we’re trying to do is give people a little inoculation into the harsh realities of this so that if this happens, they’ll know ‘I’ll run out an exit,’ or if they’re close to the guy ‘I’ll tackle him. But I won’t freeze.'”
During the Active Shooter Training Day at Alive in Christ, Hestir gave a speech and led a couple of rehearsals for the church congregation.
In the first scene, he had a member of the congregation play the role of the shooter. Hestir told the members to just listen to the man playing as the shooter. The gunman threw tennis balls, which represented bullets, at the congregation. It took about five seconds total to execute, and Hestir used it as an example of what not to do.
The next scene included an active audience. Hestir had the congregation throw small objects at the shooter when he entered the building. His intention for this second rehearsal was no one should just freeze and listen to the intruder as in the first scene.
“It’s a human condition that when something dangerous happens there’s always a shock factor of, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s happening.’ But people who have thought about it ahead of time are better prepared to avoid, which is you know just run out an exit, get away, or to stop, you know to intervene,” Hestir said.
Blake Franke, who goes to Alive in Christ, thinks that without some training, most people in the congregation would just sit there with a blank look on their face if an intruder ever did come.
“Probably more than 50 percent would be appalled by the suggestion that you should take action, and instead, no, you should probably lay down and cower in the corner and wait to see what happens," he said. "I think as folks we’re more sheep than we are, you know, watchdog."
Tim Morris, the pastor of Alive in Christ, had previousl gone to an event held by the Columbia Police Department discussing gun safety awareness in churches about a month before. He liked it so much he decided to have the police visit to inform his own congregation.
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values.