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Utah faith leaders and police unite to learn how to protect congregations from attacks

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Orthodox Rabbi Avremi Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah speaks with community advocate Pamela Atkinson at a symposium on the University of Utah campus Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.

On Sundays at church, after the sermon is over and congregants flock home, it’s Pamela Atkinson’s job to shut the iron gates outside and lock them.

“To me," the community advocate said, "it’s a very sad thing that we do at our place of worship,” welcoming places where people go to think, reflect, show gratitude and learn. It sends the message that congregants don’t feel safe and that they’re trying to keep people away.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Community advocate Pamela Atkinson joins the Department of Public Safety, along with local leaders in law enforcement, to further their partnership to protect faith-based communities from targeted violence. The symposium was held on the University of Utah campus on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.

But after watching places of worship across the world become targets for violence, Atkinson said she and other Utah faith leaders are wary of who comes through their doors.

That’s why religious leaders and law enforcement came together Wednesday at the University of Utah for a symposium on protecting faith communities from targeted violence. More than 150 people attended, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Marissa Cote said, noting most were from Utah but that some traveled from Idaho and Minnesota to attend.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said after the attack on two mosques in New Zealand in March and the mass shooting at a synagogue in San Diego in April, he felt he and others in law enforcement needed to do something to protect places of worship and their worshippers. This symposium was his answer.

He started the event with a story about his 4-year-old son.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson speaks with the media during the start of a symposium held on the University of Utah campus on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, to discuss protecting faith-based communities from targeted violence. In background, community advocate Pamela Atkinson joins the conversation.

The youngster headed off to a Sunday school class, where the teacher planned a lesson on Apostle Peter. She asked the kids if they knew who the biblical apostle was, and Anderson said his son’s little hand shot up to answer.

“Well, his real name is Peter Parker," the boy said, “and he’s Spider-Man.”

Anderson joked that his first thought was “shame on me” but, after that, he reflected on what a great opportunity it was to have a place like a church to learn these lessons, like his son had that Sunday.

“If that is taken away from us, how sad," he said. “... We can do better, and we will do better.”

Anderson told reporters the event would show faith leaders what kind of resources they have at their disposal, and simple changes they could implement — such as having someone stand at the doors as a greeter — to make congregants safer.

He mentioned places of worship could also add infrastructure, like barriers, or other ways to block off people from an attacker.

In a prayer to open the symposium Wednesday morning, Orthodox Rabbi Avremi Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah seemed to sum up the day.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Orthodox Rabbi Avremi Zippel of the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah said "it's a sad but necessary conversation," recalling attacks on places of worship as he joins a symposium at the University of Utah on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.

“Sadly, there are those who see our efforts (as faith leaders) and our homes that we create to facilitate them," Zippel said, “not as as welcoming beacons of warmth, but as targets for violence and bigotry and hatred."

He asked for God’s help to give those in attendance the ability to protect worshippers, while keeping their houses of worship “open, welcome, inviting, encouraging and, most of all, loving to all mankind without distinction.”

And he prayed that one day, a gathering like this one wouldn’t be necessary.

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