DHS official Marcus Coleman offers security tips for houses of faith marking holidays

Coleman advises congregations to keep a watchful eye as they open their doors for in-person gatherings marking special occasions, traditional worship and everyday work.

Marcus T. Coleman.  Courtesy photo

(RNS) — Marcus Coleman spends his professional life at the intersection of religion and security.

In the last month, as the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for the Department of Homeland Security, he has taken part in iftars, where Muslims have broken their daily fast during Ramadan. And he has also hosted a webinar on protecting houses of worship that drew more than 1,000 participants.

Coleman, 36, knows that numerous faiths are celebrating major religious holidays this spring in the wake of a February DHS terrorism threat summary that included “faith-based institutions, such as churches, synagogues and mosques” among the constellation of targets in a “heightened threat landscape.”

So he is advising and offering resources for congregations to keep a watchful eye as they open their doors for in-person gatherings marking special occasions, traditional worship and everyday work.

“This is not intended to be a surveillance tactic,” he said. ”We just want to encourage people to maintain a certain level of vigilance.”

A member of a Washington, D.C., congregation affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, USA, Coleman talked with Religion News Service about tips for congregations, his mask-wearing plans and the bright spots he sees between crises.

What are your key pieces of advice for congregations who want to be welcoming but also want to be safe?

I think the key piece of advice that I would encourage all faith and community-based organizations to do is, one, get connected to your local law enforcement and local community first responders. Most large gatherings of note, there is often a natural conversation for simple things about managing parking lots, traffic flow. But as you’re having those conversations that lead up to your event, ask your local law enforcement or first responders if there’s any tips or recommendations they have for your particular facility.

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Number two, I recognize that many faith organizations may be having their first very, very big gathering in quite some time, and so they may be out of practice for knowing what potential evacuation routes may look like, how to shelter in place in the event of a natural hazard. So re-familiarizing yourself if people haven’t been in a facility in a while with just what to do in the event of evacuation or a shelter in place order. And then, number three, to the extent possible, make sure that you’re plugged into locally trusted sources of information for updates and alerts.

During the webinar, there was a mention of the “Power of Hello.” What is that?

The power of hello is a training that was developed by our colleagues at CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency). Essentially what that speaks to is — as people are engaging individuals that are coming into houses of worship, or coming into a service or, in the case of employees, just coming into a facility — a way to reasonably promote employee or volunteer vigilance. We talk about observing, initiating a hello, navigating the risk and, if needed, obtaining help. We have developed several translated versions specifically for the faith community that speaks to the power of hello.

I’m Baptist. Ushers are often going to be some of the first people to engage with people who may be coming to a facility for the first time. While we know many faith traditions don’t want to turn people away, we do want to connect those greeters or those people that are responsible for being welcoming communities with enough of a framework to be able to assess and to communicate anything that they may identify as a risk to people’s safety and security.

The webinar noted that between 2010 and 2021, there were at least 32 incidents involving domestic violent extremism targeting faith communities, including  synagogues, mosques, churches and temples. Is your department preparing for what might occur in the future?

We are preparing for an increase. There is a heightened awareness for acts of hate and acts of violence towards faith-based and community-based groups through a threat alert that we released. And so it is something that we, unfortunately, are continuing to prepare for, and it’s one of the reasons why we’re increasing our outreach and engagement and support to faith-based and community groups that want to be able to keep themselves safe from targeted acts of violence. There’s going to be an active-shooter preparedness webinar that we’ll be hosting May 5.

How much does white nationalism or anti-immigrant attitudes fit into these patterns of attack on religious institutions?

Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas joined Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (2022 convention) last Friday and talked about the importance of addressing all forms of domestic violent extremism and was clear in his speech then about the role white supremacy and white supremacists specifically have played. We know that threats come from all different aspects and means, but a lot of what we see when we think about domestic violent extremism, includes the conversation about the role that some white supremacist-led organizations have played toward increasing targeted acts of violence and acts of hate.

What do you think of the idea of having armed guards inside or outside of a sanctuary to defend congregants should an assailant enter their facility?

I think it’s important for every faith-based and community-based organization to work with their local law enforcement and work with their local government and work within their own organization to determine and assess their level of response to mitigate risks. The FEMA nonprofit security (grant) program does allow for providing funding to pay for contracted security. And so we recognize that in some communities, they may deem it amenable, based on the decisions of that particular facility and organization, that they want to have armed guards.

And you have also been involved with responses to the COVID -19 pandemic. Do you think that masks are still appropriate in worship settings, especially if there is congregational singing?

I defer to what the guidance says at the local level. We know many faith-based organizations have taken the lead on instituting their own masking requirements for things like singing. My deference for me and my family is to do what we feel most comfortable with. We may end up going to Easter service this Sunday, and if I go, I’m wearing a mask. But we want folks to make the best decision possible based on their level of risk and risk exposure. And if they’re looking for guidance, for information, covid.gov has the guidance for your specific community.

You deal with a lot of challenging aspects of homeland security, from natural disasters to attacks on houses of worship. Is there a particular bright spot in the midst of these tragedies and crises that your office often finds itself addressing?

There is, and it’s the ability of the faith community, time and again, to come together post-incident and find ways to provide a multifaith response to help people in greatest times of need for natural and manmade incidents. We see it shortly after the hostage situation in Congregation Beth Israel (in Colleyville, Texas) — even during, you had members from the Muslim community, Christian community, Jewish community all coming together to respond to that. And then of course, unfortunately, we’re in spring, severe weather season. We’re getting ready for hurricane season as well.

And so we want to continue to encourage people to make connections before disasters because we know after, it’s typically going to be neighbors helping neighbors, which includes faith-based and community-based groups.

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