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How to Respond to Intruders in Worship
How to Respond to Intruders in Worship

Would you know what to do if your congregation’s Sunday morning service was disrupted by people who despised your beliefs? It happened July 20 to the congregation at First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of New Orleans.

In the middle of a service—during a period of meditation—activists from the anti-abortion fundamentalist Christian group Operation Save America began speaking about “abominations” and shouting that the church was “not a true faith,” said the Rev. Deanna Vandiver, who was leading the service. She is executive director of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a group affiliated with UU congregations in New Orleans.

The service was dedicated to commissioning UU youth leaders from around the country who were completing a youth justice training program in New Orleans. 

The congregation responded appropriately to the disturbance. Vandiver invited the protesters to stay if they could worship respectfully. When they continued to speak out, the most vocal ones were escorted out by members of the congregation and police were called. Others were made to leave later when they engaged youth and others in inappropriate conversations during coffee hour.

More information about the congregation’s response is included in blog posts by Vandiver and Bart Frost, the congregation’s director of religious education.

This is not the first targeting of UU congregations by conservative groups or individuals. In 2006 the same anti-abortion group engaged in a protest outside the UU Church of Jackson, MS. In 2008 two people were killed during a service at Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, TN, by a shotgun-wielding man who said he hated liberals.

Since the possibility exists that other UU churches could be targeted, congregations are encouraged to develop security plans so they can effectively respond to these situations.

"All of us should use this as an opportunity to create a security response plan,” said the Rev. Scott Tayler, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s director of Congregational Life. “It is part of our commitment to beloved community. We are here to care for one another. That includes keeping each other safe. Being prepared to respond protects not only our bodies but our sense of home. Intentionality and proactive plans ensure responses that reflect our values, not just our fears."

In 2013 InterConnections interviewed the Rev. Aaron Payson, a founding member of the UU Trauma Response Ministry. He recommended that every congregation develop a safety plan that covers not only intruders in church buildings, but also natural disasters.

Payson specifically recommended that:

  • key leaders carry inexpensive two-way radios for quick communication and response to an intrusion on Sunday morning.
  • as few church building entrances as possible be open.
  • calls to 911 be made from a land line for quicker response.
  • congregations consider hiring “security sextons.”

More advice is in the InterConnections article "Planning for Emergencies and the Unthinkable."

Other general recommendations: Decide beforehand who calls police in emergency situations. Designate someone to take video of any disturbance. Don’t engage with intruders any more than necessary; they’re not there to thoughtfully consider your viewpoint.

Frost, at New Orleans, said the congregation responded well to the disruption. He credits the youth, who were being honored that Sunday, with quickly starting to sing and getting the congregation members to form a circle. “It soon became apparent who the protesters were, because they weren’t singing along with the congregation and they didn’t join the circle,” Frost noted.

After the incident, the congregation adopted a policy covering any future disturbances. If it happens again, the service leader will direct the protesters to leave and then begin singing. That will be a signal for the congregation to join in and for a designated response team to escort the protesters out and for others to secure the religious education classrooms.

“One of the things I would have done differently this time would have been to use very clear language with them—to tell them they were trespassing,” said Frost. “When I did use that word with some of them it seemed to have an impact. They didn’t seem to want to be arrested and they left immediately.”

He said he remembered noticing before the service there were a number of well-dressed people in the congregation—more than normal. “I thought that was a little unusual.”

He said the congregation is grappling now with how to be welcoming in the wake of the disruption. “There’s some anxiety about how much to trust people. What we’re trying to do is to be generous in our welcoming. We also are more intentional in explaining to guests how this congregation is one of the oldest in New Orleans, and we talk about how we survived Katrina, which filled our building with water. We want people to have to deal emotionally with the fact that we consider this sacred space.”

He said the congregation has a policy now of not engaging with protesters. “OSA has a practice of videoing any conversations with church members and then editing them to create their propaganda.” He has mixed feelings about congregation members taking videos of disruptions. “That might be useful in case legal action is taken, but to keep those videos in the church archives could cause emotional stress, in my opinion.”

Resources

  • Contact the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, TN, for a copy of its Sextons Manual, which covers the security procedures it adopted after the 2008 intrusion.
  • What to Do When Violence Strikes,” an article about domestic terrorism at church and what to consider in a security plan. From Risk Reporter, a publication of Church Mutual Insurance Company.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.