Texas church attack raises Detroit area anxieties

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Rochester Hills — Debate about guns and security has heated up among Metro Detroit religious leaders since a shooting rampage at a Texas church earlier this month.

Pastors and ministers say they’re trying to be proactive in light of the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which killed 26 people, and responsive to security concerns among members. Some say they wouldn’t be surprised to find they have congregants packing heat while praying.

“There is a heightened concern,” said Don Rice, a deacon at Christ Community Church in Warren. Security issues, he said, have been “part of the conversation for some time now.”

Warren officials have invited representatives from 100 churches and faith-based groups to a meeting Wednesday to discuss ways to handle an active shooter situation.

“We feel it’s important to help our residents know how to react,” said Warren Police Chief William Dwyer. “I wouldn’t advise members to arm themselves. But perhaps in the Texas incident, that might have saved the killing of 26 men, women and children and wounding of 20 others.

“They didn’t stand a chance,” Dwyer said. “If someone else had been armed in that church, lives would have been spared.”

Bloomfield Hills police conducted an active shooter training session Sunday at Christ Church Cranbrook that drew about 200 people, some from other churches, said Lt. Dustin Lockard. He said the church asked his department to conduct the event, which focused on methods developed by the ALICE Training Institute — alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate.

“This has been done at some areas schools, but I think it might be the first church in our city — and it was pretty well-received,” Lockard said. “It’s to help educate people there are things they can do to increase their chances of survival besides hiding under a pew or desk.

“It isn’t training people to arm themselves with weapons but there are options and things that can be done to deter an intruder — maybe throwing a stapler at them — that can distract and buy time and keep yourself and others safe,” the lieutenant said.

Concealed weapons

At one Rochester Hills church, security concerns have led the pastor to permit three members with concealed-carry licenses to bring their weapons to Mass.

The Rev. Fred Kalaj of St. Paul Albanian Catholic Church took the action, in consultation with local police, last spring after a visitor made him uncomfortable. Under state law, a church leader can give permission for holders of concealed-pistol permits to carry on the premises.

Around Easter, the pastor said a man was walking around the church and when Kalaj approached him, said he was from Pakistan, had heard about the ethnic church and wanted to “look around.”

The man, who seemed nervous to Kalaj, asked a series of questions about the church and its religious practices.

“He didn’t say anything threatening, but I brought it up to the church council and a decision was made to allow some of our members who had shown interest to carry their weapons in church,” Kalaj said.

In light of the Texas massacre and fresh concerns from parish council members, Kalaj said he is considering six other requests from parishioners to act as unofficial security if needed. About 2,000 families belong to the church, which can draw nearly 5,000 for holiday Masses and feast days.

“We don’t make a show of it; no one wears (guns) openly,” he said. “I have sat down with all three and trust them as responsible. We don’t want to make church like a military base, but it’s good to take precautions and to be prepared on what to do. We may have as many as nine (armed at services) by the (Christmas) Mass this year.”

Many remember a 2003 shooting incident inside the same church. Gjon Pepaj, 38, of Rochester Hills fired a 9mm handgun into the back of the head of Gjek Isufaj, 38, of Madison Heights, whom Pepaj felt had come to kill him, Kalaj said.

In the resulting melee inside the 1,300-seat church, seven other parishioners suffered injuries, including several who jumped through windows to escape and others who subdued Pepaj.

Isufaj died of his wounds, and Pepaj was convicted of his murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“About a quarter of the congregation never returned,” said Kalaj, who became pastor three years ago. “It was a sad day. Neither man were even church members. They had been friends, played soccer together but one hit the other one day and that started a feud that some in Albanian culture feel must be avenged.”

While Kalaj, as pastor, can let CPL holders carry in his church, a bill pending in the state Legislature would open houses of worship, schools and other “gun free” zones to anyone carrying a concealed weapon.

The Michigan Senate approved the measure earlier this month. To become law, it still must be passed by the House and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who has previously opposed measures to expand access to guns.

Getting members ready

At St. Mark Catholic Church in Warren, the slaying of two parishioners earlier this year spurred leaders to ask the police department for help in teaching members how to handle violence and other crisis situations.

Cindy and Steve Collins were found fatally shot inside their home Sept. 1. Charged in the slayings is their nephew, Joseph Borowiak, 37, another church member, who blamed the couple for his personal troubles.

“We feel some form of training on how to deal with emergencies in church is necessary,” said Mary Jo Ruebelman, officer manager and worship leader for the parish, which has 1,050 member families. “We have the elderly and the infirm to be concerned about. And children.

“We want to be proactive and have requested help from our police department to do that,” she said. “I look forward to future meetings and talking with people from other churches.”

According to neighbors and investigators, in the months leading up to the death of his uncle and aunt, Borowiak had told other church members he was hearing voices from God. On one occasion, police were called because he tore up prayer books after seeing the numbers 666 — a symbol of the Devil — on a bar code.

Church officials banned Borowiak from the church.

“He attended services and had been disruptive at times and we need to know how to deal with such situations,” Ruebelman said.

She would not say if the church was willing to let parishioners bring firearms to services. “Some could be carrying now and I wouldn’t know,” Ruebelman said.

Rice, the deacon at Christ Community in Warren, said he wouldn’t be surprised if some members were armed during services.

“I know one man who said he always carries three days of every week and he would let people guess which three,” he said.

But Rice said he believes many members would feel less safe if they knew someone in church was armed.

“I know there are people at my church who – if they knew someone was carrying a gun in church – even if they were a uniformed police officer, they would probably stop coming,” he said. “They don’t want to be near guns and they are afraid to be around them.

“I personally feel (guns) will be the devastation of the church as a whole,” Rice said. “It won’t make people feel safe. It will make people stay away.”


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