Faith leaders and government officials came together this week to share ideas on how to keep houses of worship safe.
The discussions come nearly two months after a racially motivated gunman killed three Black people at a Dollar General store in the New Town community of Jacksonville.
During sessions Monday and Tuesday, representatives from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security spoke about strategies they can use to keep houses of worship safe.
Strategies include learning about federal and state laws, the Run-Hide-Fight method for avoiding a mass shooting and more. One of the people listening was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Oakland on Jacksonville’s Eastside.
The Rev. Christopher McKee Jr. said learning about the preventative strategies is important. But above all else, he said, being in the same room as other faith leaders and getting to know one another is what matters most.
“We certainly know we are safer together. When we work together as faith leaders again across communities, across difference, across different faith traditions, it’s really important that we know one another,” McKee said.
McKee said he feels safe with procedures put into place at his church, but after the New Town shooting, there is a heightened awareness of the current climate, he said.
“We plan for the worst and pray for the best, and I think that’s the case for all our houses of worship,” McKee said.
According to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, 23% of all hate crimes in Florida in 2022 involved religion. That’s an increase from 15% in 2021 and 18% in 2020.
Frank Talbot, chief assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said it’s critically important to report suspected hate crimes to law enforcement.
“Law enforcement is working closely together. Anytime we see a hate crime, we’re going to come together as a law enforcement community to find the person, or people, that committed the crime and bring them to justice,” Talbot said.
The Department of Justice says that if you believe you are the victim of a hate crime or might have witnessed one, you should contact law enforcement immediately, then quickly report the incident to the FBI at tips.FBI.Gov or by calling 1-800-225-5324.
If it’s an emergency, call 911.