WOOSTER — A man in one of the back pews at Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church on Saturday raised his hand and asked what happens after they disarm a gunman attacking a congregation.
"Why shouldn’t we just shoot him?"
It is a complicated question with both spiritual and legal implications and one that the founders of this church — formed 191 years ago — likely never imagined.
But in an era of widely publicized mass shootings at schools, at concerts, in restaurants and during worship services, some churchgoers across the U.S. are uneasy.
On Saturday, a panel of clergy and law enforcement gathered with the public at Salem Evangelical to discuss church security.
Tim Barrage, president of the church council and an adult probation officer with the mental health unit in Akron, organized the event hoping to start a community conversation.
"Is Christianity a pacifistic type religion? Are we just going to take it or is there a method or means to defend ourselves?" he said Friday before the event.
About 40 people showed up Saturday afternoon at the small church north of Wooster.
Bishop Abraham Allende — who leads more than 180 churches that are part of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — introduced himself by acknowledging the unease of U.S. churchgoers but expressed misgivings about church security.
"I worry that you will let our fear and anxiety override our Christian values, turning our churches into bunkers," Allende said.
"In the interest of safety and security, we risk giving up the ministry of the church," he said, quoting Paul from the Bible:
"Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!"
He said he didn’t want to approach church security pitting a theological perspective against that of law enforcement, but in some ways that is how the afternoon unfolded.
Randy Vipperman, a probation officer colleague of organizer Barrage, is one of a 20-member security team at House of the Lord in Akron.
"Ten wear suits, 10 wear ‘security’ shirts," he said, adding that most are active or retired military or police.
"We’re very open and loving but, in today’s world ... you we have people coming in off of their meds causing trouble ... intoxicated," Vipperman said.
Two weeks ago, he said he shadowed a man who came in who was clearly carrying a gun and possibly looking for money. The church also keeps someone posted in the parking lot because there have been car break-ins.
"We’re here to protect the people," he said, "not single anyone out."
Capt. Doug Hunter of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department attends another local church and advocates something similar.
First, he said, churches should have an awareness that violence can happen and a plan if it does, he said.
"I go to my own small church and consider myself a ‘sheepdog,’" he said.
Human nature for many is to get along, he said. They are the sheep and don’t have the training to take on the wolves that are among them.
"My recommendation [to churches], if you have someone who has skills and willing to be protector, the sheepdog, do that," he said.
But he cautioned that "many people think they’re the sheepdog, but they’re not."
So, what was the answer to the man’s question: Should church members shoot a disarmed gunman?
Spiritually, no, if the lethal threat has passed, clergy said.
Legally, Hunter said, not unless the gunman could cause serious physical harm, had the opportunity to attack and their safety was in jeopardy.
And even if the shooting was justified under criminal law, a lawyer on the panel warned they could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting civil lawsuits.
Some on the panel also cautioned that law enforcement responding to a shooting scene won’t be able to tell the good gunmen from the bad and that innocent people could easily be shot amid the confusion.
Allende urged people to get to know their neighbors and people who are different from themselves, saying that disconnect contributes to the lack of moral values and civility in our time.
He referred to the back story of the good Samaritan who helped the Jew.
Samaritans and Jews, he said, "got along worse than Republicans and Democrats."
Martin Luther King Jr. speculated that other Samaritans probably walked by and decided not to help the Jew, fearing what would happen to them, Allende said. But the good Samaritan worried more about what would happen to the Jew if he did nothing.
Hunter, sitting two seats away, said that’s also the meaning behind the sign-off he uses after each of his frequent Facebook video posts for the sheriff’s department: "Think a little more of others, and a little less of yourself, and things will be a whole lot better here in Wayne County."
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.