Houston churches forced to lock their doors
Increased thefts and rising fear of violent crime have moved churches to increase safety
By ALLAN TURNER
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Security officer Clarence Washington walks back to his desk after making rounds to check that doors are locked at First United Methodist Church Tuesday in downtown Houston.
Smiley N. Pool: Chronicle
On any Sunday morning, sanctuary doors of churches that line Main Street and nearby thorough fares swing open to welcome thousands of faithful who come to worship in some of thecity's oldest, most prominent religious institutions. But at other times in theweek, doors may be locked tight, windows latched and grounds and hallwayspatrolled by burly uniformed guards.
Facedwith thievery and violence, churches increasingly have adopted securitymeasures that, in some cases, are so stringent that the Messiah might faceobstacles gaining entry.
Lastweek, thieves stole gold and marble candlesticks valued at $5,000 from theCatholic Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, 1111 Pierce, one of two major down town churches whose sanctuaries are open on weekdays. It was the latest in a seriesof crimes and threatening encounters that dates to at least 1986 when the Rev.Eric Anderson was fatally shot by a church member inside FirstUnited MethodistChurch, 1320 Main.
And though the security problems may be most pronounced at the city's downtown-areachurches, their suburban counterparts often implement equally stringent safetymeasures to protect their property and congregants.
At Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, pastoral associate Yvonne Gill said the churchemploys private guards to watch over Sunday services. At worst, she said,congregants sometimes are accosted by panhandlers. "We ask them toleave," she said of those who create a disturbance. "Next, we callthe police."
On weekdays, though, security in the sanctuary is reliant on those who use it. Among those who come to pray is Janie Casteneda, who's been a member of the church 50of her 57 years.
"Ilove this place," she said. "I come here three times a week. Youknow, when I'm here alone and somebody comes in, I have a quick feeling offear. But I say a quick prayer, and that casts the fear aside. God's alive andthe angels are alive and that gives me strength."
Gillthis week vowed that the cathedral doors will remain unlocked despite the theft.
"Thisis a place of refuge," she said. "It's sad that this happened, butthe thief may have been very desperate. We will not do anything differently. Wecan't operate in fear."
Noarrests have been made in the theft, said Houstonpolice spokesman Victor Senties.
SusanConverse, parish administrator for Christ Church Cathedral, 1117 Texas, said nocrimes have been reported at the Episcopal church's sanctuary, which is openweekdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors, however, have attempted to steal crossesand other religious artifacts from the church's nearby chapel, she said. At other religious institutions, front doors that are wide open on holy days aresecurely locked.
The main doors at Annunciation Catholic Church, Islamic Da'wah Center, South Main Street Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Paul's United Methodist Church,Palmer Episcopal Church and Congregation Emanu El all are closed. Those wishingto gain entry to pray, however, generally can do so by checking in with staffor guards.
It'snot only the downtown houses of worship that have tightened security.
First Baptist Church, 7401 Katy Freeway, closed its sanctuary doors after burglars hitthe church two times in early 2006. Now, weekday worshippers usually aredirected to a prayer room or small chapel. LakewoodChurch in Greenway Plaza,also hit by burglars, locked its main church doors and posted guards. FirstUnited Methodist's Westchase campus, 10570 Westpark, locked its sanctuary andhired a guard.
Notall the places of worship experienced dramatic episodes of crime — CongregationEmanu El twice was targeted by firebombers in 1994 — but all experiencedfeelings of vulnerability.
"We feed 300-plus homeless people every day," said Palmer Episcopal's LisaSeltzer. "We have one of the best-known programs in the country ... sowe're always concerned — more about our people and children than we are forproperty. You can always replace things."
Palmerand other churches hired guards, sometimes armed, and outfitted their buildingswith electronic security systems. "We've got uniformed security guards.We've got plainclothes guards," said Bill Pugh, facilities manager at South Main Baptist Church.Then he cut himself short. "We're not going to give out how we operate toanybody," he said.
When informed that a visitor had wandered the seemingly empty halls of the church'swelcome center and sanctuary without encountering a guard, he responded,"There was one in your area the whole time."
A short distance away in the Museum District, a sleeping homeless man curled in a reardoor to the St. Matthew Lutheran Church's sanctuary.
Business Manager Sarah Fisher said the church long has been troubled by crime. In the1990s, burglars on four or five occasions used a rope attached to a pickup toforce open church doors. Later they scaled an awning to gain entry through anunmonitored second-floor window. More recently burglars drove through theparking lot breaking into cars. To control the problem, the church locked oneof two gates, closing the lot to through traffic.
Once,a homeless man slipped into the church with a wedding party and later was foundmaking long distance phone calls on the office phone. Now,visitors gain entrance only when buzzed into the building, and only churchmembers or members of associated missions may use the sanctuary.
Fisher said the most frightening incident occurred about 18 months ago when a pregnant employee unthinkingly buzzed in a stranger. The man immediately began ranting,demanding to see the minister and threatening to kill anyone who interfered.The intruder was wrestled out of the building by a custodian.
Suchnear-misses with violence haunt many church officials, who recall the May 1986 murder of the Rev. Eric T. Anderson, associate pastor at First UnitedMethodist. Andersonwas fatally shot in the church after he was confronted by a disturbed churchmember, Neal Wayne Higginbotham.
Since then, spokesman Allen Houk said, the church has installed an electronic alarm system.
"The tradition in the past had been to keep the doors wide open," Houk said."That's one of the mainstays of American Christianity ... We're as open asis reasonable."
Given tight security at the churches, a question arises: Could Christ gain entry,especially if he sported the long hair and beard with which he's often depicted?
"You know," said St. Matthew Lutheran's Fisher, "I would pray thatsomething would give me the sign to let that man in."
"Withour security," responded First United Methodist's Houk, "they would call for one of the pastors or directors. ... There would be a pause, but it would only be momentary. This is very difficult to answer. What makes you thinkhe wouldn't be wearing a business suit?"