Click photo to enlarge
Security guard Paul Beasley patrols the campus at Calvary Temple Church in Concord on Aug. 25, 2013.

EAST COUNTY -- If there ever were honor among thieves, the days when they thought twice about targeting churches are gone. Just ask the Rev. Robert Rien of St. Ignatius of Antioch Church, which is on its third set of surveillance cameras -- crooks stole all the others.

Or talk to St. John's Lutheran Church, also in Antioch, where earlier this month a woman stole the garage door opener from an unlocked Honda sedan in the parking lot while the owners were attending Sunday service and, armed with the address from the vehicle's registration papers, burglarized their home.

And there's the Rev. Mario Howell of Antioch Church Family, who lost his personal laptops to burglars who swiped them from the church office a few weeks ago along with another computer, speakers and a 40-inch flat-screen TV.

Crimes against houses of worship in East County seldom include violence, although the possibility has put the need to take precautions on the radar of pastors everywhere: A San Diego church hosted a safety conference in June that included a presentation on how to respond to a shooter, and earlier this month a nationally known attorney hosted a webinar on the legal ramifications of gun violence on church grounds.

Locally, many churches are doing what they can to thwart those with larcenous intentions.

Some like Solomon Temple Missionary Baptist Church were prompted to beef up security following a rash of copper wire thefts a few years ago.

The Pittsburg church's pastor assembled a team of volunteers that included off-duty police officers to patrol the parking lot with walkie-talkies during services.


Advertisement

Because some congregation members didn't want the church to appear unwelcoming by also adding gates to the fence bordering its property, Solomon Temple instead installed closed-circuit TV cameras that could be accessed remotely so workers could keep an eye on the grounds even if they weren't on-site, said Taunita Trotter, assistant to the pastor.

After someone stole all of them about a year ago, however, church leadership secured the two entrances to the parking lot with gates, she said.

"At that point it was a necessity," Trotter said, noting that since then there haven't been any problems.

St. Ignatius suffered similar troubles when thieves hit the church multiple times in a single month about two years ago, Rien said. They not only stole copper wire conduits from air conditioning units but all the security cameras on the building and in the parking lot and when the church replaced them, they made off with the second set as well, he said.

"This is something new," Rien said. "Churches always were sacred -- they were never violated like this."

At that point parishioners began guarding the premises in two-person teams that worked in shifts from sunset to sunrise every day for a year until the church sealed off its perimeter with an iron fence and two gates at a cost of $58,000, he said.

A church member also donated a golf cart in which volunteers make the rounds of the expansive parking lot during the eight weekly services as well as at weddings, funerals and baptisms, he said.

But even those efforts didn't help an 82-year-old woman who was knocked to the ground during an Aug. 18 purse snatching as she was walking to Mass, still too far from church for its security cameras to capture her assailant.

Like Solomon Temple, St. John's Lutheran also has cameras -- some of them hidden -- to ensure the safety of members in the parking lot before and after evening choir practice.

Although the building is clearly visible from Highway 4 and Hillcrest Avenue, the lot itself is on a side street and anyone up to no good is consequently less exposed.

At New Birth Church in Pittsburg, parking lot attendants' bright yellow vests alert would-be thieves that people are watching for suspicious activity.

Arguably one of the most crime-conscious churches is Calvary Temple, where security teams buzzing around the enormous parking lot in golf carts is just one aspect of a sweeping effort to protect worshippers as well as their belongings.

Professional-grade two-way radios link those monitoring the grounds to workers inside the church, and a police officer in the congregation has prepped ushers and greeters on how to spot someone who might be trouble as well as what to do if he or she becomes violent.

Church members wishing to volunteer in any capacity first are fingerprinted for a criminal-background check to weed out those who have sexually abused children or assaulted someone, said Executive Pastor Steve Hunt.

Those with a clean record receive a lanyard bearing their name, making it possible to spot visitors -- and potential intruders, he said.

Parents of children enrolled in Calvary Temple's preschool can't access that building without entering a code, and the speaker system enables teachers in different classrooms to alert each other in an emergency.

In addition, the church sent a retired police officer who now works as a security consultant to a conference on how congregations can protect themselves, and its leaders will be reviewing a list of safety recommendations he has drawn up.

But Hunt acknowledges that no security measures are flawless.

"If somebody is bent on doing evil there is not a lot you can do to prevent it," he said, noting that criminals can scale fences and study security guards' routines to find a window of opportunity.

"In the final analysis we just have to trust God," Hunt said. "We can do everything we can and people find ways around things."

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.