By Mary Frances Schjonberg, Episcopal News Service
Standing at the window in her church office, Roberta Karstetter watched the angry man circle the building, checking every door as he looked for a way inside.
She had just refused to let him into the offices of Christ Episcopal Church in Delavan, Wisconsin, where she is the parish administrator.
“I spoke to him through the glass doors and I just had an uneasy feeling about him, so I wouldn’t unlock the door,” she told ENS in a recent interview. He said he needed help, but he wouldn’t say what kind of help.
“He got really belligerent and angry,” Karstetter recalled. He opened his coat, saying, “I don’t have a gun or anything, just let me in.” He began rattling the door.
Karstetter decided to walk away and go back upstairs to her office, where she watched the man test every door to get inside.
After she was sure he had left, she got in her car and went home, a decision she said she rarely makes.
“It just scared me to think what if I let him in,” she said. “I wonder what he did want.”
It wasn’t the first time Karstetter had encountered someone at the church who worried her, and it wasn’t the last. For instance, there was the woman who got angry when Karstetter offered her food instead of the money she demanded. The woman drove off, swearing and threatening to burn down the church. Karstetter reported the incident to the police.
“She has since been back, just a few weeks ago, asking for assistance again and we told her we’d give her food and not cash, and she said that takes too long,” Karstetter said. “She turned around and walked out mad again, but she didn’t threaten to burn down the church this time.”
Those incidents – and others – don’t prevent Karstetter from doing what she’s been doing in one form or another at St. Peter’s for the last 28 years: working at a parish that participates in a church-based rotating homeless shelter and offers a food pantry to supplement a larger community one.
“Part of the reason I keep coming back is that 95 percent or more of the people that come here for help are not a physical threat or danger to us at all. It’s just that small percent that get you scared,” she said. “The reason I come back is because you’ve got to love your neighbor as yourself, you know. It’s about the love and compassion that I think God puts in our hearts and part of the Baptismal Covenant that says is to seek and serve Christ in all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. If we treated everybody that came – those 95 percent – as a threat, what kind of message does that give them about the church being open and loving and welcoming to them?”
The question of balancing the church’s ministry with the safety of its ministers has been on many people’s mind, once again, since Douglas Franklin Jones, a homeless man, shot church administrative assistant Brenda Brewington and co-rector the Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn inside St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, before killing himself earlier this month.
Speaking to reporters outside of Kohn’s funeral, Diocese of Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton said the mourners also remembered “all who are on the front lines of ministry. These are the administrators, the secretaries, those priests who are alone” as their congregation’s sole employee.
Sutton also called attention to “a society that’s still has not figured out a way to keep deadly arms out of distressed persons who can do so much harm, and a society that will have people on the streets whom society at large has not cared for, and they end up at the doorsteps of our churches and our churches welcome them — our churches receive them and help them in the name of Christ.”
Craig Stuart-Paul, St. Peter’s warden, pledged days after the shootings that the parish’s ministry would continue, “and we won’t do it from behind bulletproof glass.”
To that end, the parish recently rededicated itself to its ministry, pledging to “transform” the office where the two women were killed “into an environment that welcomes all people to the church, and provides safety for those who will work there.” The parish also vowed to “reach out in search of the best ideas on how a church may minister to the poor and needy in suburban America” and to work with all of Ellicott City’s faith communities “to provide a hand up to the poor and needy in our neighborhood, developing a plan that is seeded with knowledge and broad community support.”
The Rev. Susan Rebecca Michelfelder, currently interim rector at Christ Church in Middletown, New Jersey, told her congregation in a recent sermon that the shooting had left her “truly bereft.”
Michelfelder has spent much her in ministry, as she puts it, “in neighborhoods with problems.” She’s been the victim of “smash and grab” crimes while in her car on the way to church. She’s had to warn employees to lock up their valuables or expect them to be stolen by the people the congregation served. She’s worked in a congregation whose pastor wore a bulletproof vest for a time after a mentally ill man burst into the church during a service and threatened to shoot him. A woman once asked her, “what do I have to do, stab you?” when Michelfelder refused to give her money.
“Maybe I’m addicted to excitement or something, but I like to be in neighborhoods with problems because there the church can really make a difference and a difference is needed,” she told ENS.
The Maryland parish is very much like her current parish in suburban New Jersey.
“It could have been us just as easily, absolutely,” she said. Noting that the parish helps run the Calico Cat Thrift Store, Cupboard and Pantry next door to the church, Michelfelder said, “we get scary characters walking in here sometimes, too.”
“It is truly a wonder that more of us haven’t been killed in the church office because that is often where people first come for help,” she said during the sermon.
There are steps that church workers, and their employers, can take to reduce the chances that an encounter with an unbalanced person will end in tragedy. Some are personal safety choices such as having a can of mace or pepper spray — or in Karstetter’s case, wasp spray — handy. Some workers resist the temptation to come back to work in the evening to catch up, if it means working alone in the building.
Other steps are more institutional: installing adequate lighting, strong locks, video cameras, door bells on doors that are always locked, alarm systems or panic buttons; hiring security guards; and having a code word or phrase for staff to use with each other that indicate help is needed.
Security experts suggest limiting the access of non-employees to only certain parts of the building, and knowing who is in the building at all times. Training in how to de-escalate a potentially violent situation is another common suggestion, as is sharing information with colleagues at their church and others in the community about people they encounter.
Getting to know the people you serve is crucial, according to Sean Leas, an ex-Marine who is now the property manager at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. What he and his colleagues have learned with “even our hardest cases, the ones who may be more of the criminal mind” among the 120 or so people who come to the parish’s weekday Anchorage breakfast program is the power of greeting each one, and wishing them well when they leave.
“Eventually with most of them you get to the point where they’re saying ‘hi’ and ‘bye,’ which is what you want,” he told ENS in an interview. “You want them to know that you see them, that you respect them.”
Lease said it is a “good investment to know the people who frequent our streets and may come into church,” yet in the end “our main thing isn’t to ask questions; it’s to feed them, and provide a safe place for everybody to eat.”
St. James keeps the doors to its offices locked, Leas said. The 10 to 12 paid and volunteer staff members who are in the building “try not to open the door to people unless we know them,” he said, adding, “we’re pretty loose with that and trusting.”
The parish hired a security guard nine years ago after “there were a couple run-ins with parishioners and some of the breakfast guests giving the parishioners a hard time” and “we know there was drug dealing and different things going on,” he said.
The degree to which any or all of these steps are needed and fit a particular church’s situation depends in part, Michelfelder said, on “how secure [the ministers] feel in general, how empowered they feel” to manage their own situation. That includes knowing and deciding to accept the risks.
"We know the church office is not a safe place,” she said. “We just know this. If you can’t live with that, you maybe shouldn’t work here.”
Deb Weber, the secretary at Christ Church, Delavan, is a case in point. As a former police officer who works part time at the Episcopal church, part time at Delavan United Methodist Church and runs the emergency shelter, Watson said she doesn’t feel very scared really, “but there are times I do feel uncomfortable.”
“If we let fear drive our ministry, we aren’t being very good about persevering against evil,” Karstetter said as Weber murmured agreement. “That fear is the evil that if we let get a foothold, we wouldn’t do any ministry.”
The church, Weber said, has a mission among people who might be frightful. “So many of the people we come in contact with, this is the only love they’ve ever seen,” she said.
That knowledge, and a good dose of empathy, help both Weber and Karstetter. “They work up the courage to come and ask for help, and then you treat them like they’re horrible, scary people? You can’t do that with everybody,” Karstetter said. “Even the people that sometimes you’re afraid of, we still need to respect their dignity even though they have substance-abuse problems and everything else. We still try to love them as Christ loved us.”
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.