On any given Sunday: Parish security teams build a community that looks out for one another

North Texas Catholic
(Jan 12, 2021) Local

FORT WORTH — On any given Sunday, Mark Hesselgrave steps into Good Shepherd Church in Colleyville ready to give up his life for his fellow parishioners attending Mass.

And it’s not just him. Good Shepherd relies on an entire team of armed Guardians, plus medical personnel trained in first aid and basic life support, and ushers and greeters — observers — trained in identifying suspicious behaviors and body language.

Before the Mass, the diverse team gets together and recites a prayer composed by Deacon Richard Griego, a Marine who served in Vietnam. “Protecting Father, you have called us to ‘stand a post’ as Guardian Ministers for the protection of those you place in our path, the faithful and visitors of our parish…”

Prayer is needed, Hesselgrave explained. “We are a group of folks willing to put our lives on the line to protect each other and the lives of our [fellow] parishioners. It’s so critically important that we pray together and ask God to watch over and protect us.”

After their prayer, the team rolls into action.

Members brief in the usher room and gear up with two-way radios and ear-

pieces. They run a complete facilities check, making sure nobody is hiding out in the building. They lock doors that should be locked. They greet worshippers as they come into the church to discreetly screen for anyone who might seem out of place, fidgety, or suspicious. (“We call it heightening our ‘Spidey senses,’” Hesselgrave said).

They also introduce themselves to the police officer on duty, “so he knows who we are. The [officers] know we’re armed and they’re totally supportive and glad to have the backup,” Hesselgrave explained.

Then they sit or stand in specific places in the church, where they can have clear views of the congregation during Mass. You might not notice them, but they notice you.

That safety ritual at Good Shepherd is just one of many similar ones taking place at Masses all over the Diocese of Fort Worth. It’s all part of the diocese’s multi-layered security program to pro- actively ensure the safety of the faithful in its 91 parishes and 19 schools. Despite challenges presented by the pandemic, training of Guardian Ministry teams continues.

A Community Ministry

The idea of the Guardian teams was introduced in early 2018, when Bishop Michael Olson enlisted the help of a security firm to assist the diocese in developing a comprehensive plan to address the reality of mass shootings in sacred spaces, such as the Sutherland Springs massacre in 2017.

The firm conducted vulnerability assessments at every parish and school and gave recommendations.

It also proposed the idea of recruiting, screening, and training parishioners to provide security at parishes, a model that has been used successfully by other Christian churches.

A Guardian Ministry team pray

Members of Good Shepherd Parish's Guardian Ministry team pray before a recent Sunday Mass.

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Led by Mike Short, the diocese’s first director of security, parishes across the diocese’s 28 counties are currently implementing Guardian Ministry teams.

While one aspect of the Guardian Ministry includes training and deploying armed parishioners, the most important part of the ministry is building a “community that looks out for one another,” Short said, explaining that many Guardians do not carry firearms.

Hesselgrave, an armed Guardian himself, explained, “The huge part of the ministry is training in observation and recognition of potential threats.”

That means recruiting volunteers from across different ministries — such as ushers, greeters, lectors, and even Eucharistic ministers — and training them in a “holistic approach to safety.”

Guardian team members are extensively and continually trained in everything from observation and recognition of potential threats to de-escalation techniques and responding to medical emergencies. The volunteers who make up the medical personnel on the team receive training in “Stop the Bleed” techniques and treating trauma.

During the week, many of Guardian Ministry team members work in law enforcement, or as doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Some are veterans or currently in the military and some work in retail and customer service jobs.

For Eric Debus, who leads the Guardian Ministry at St. Mark Parish in Argyle, there’s a common thread between those different occupations.

“You must have a servant’s heart to do this,” he said. “The virtues that go along [with this ministry] are charity, you want to give back in some way. Justice is another, because you believe in being there for others, holding people accountable, and being there to protect. Then, of course, courage. You need courage to do this on any part of the team.”

Short, the director of security, would add “relational” to that.

“The reality of this vision is a community-based system that looks out for one another,” he said. “We primarily do that through relationships. Everybody [on the team] should be relational so that they can understand who is coming to the parish and building a relationship with them.”

Sheep Dogs

Of course, a crucial aspect of the Guardian Ministry is the selecting, screening, and training of parishioners to respond to an armed threat. Debus, a law enforcement officer, is one of those armed Guardians.

He describes those men and women as “the sheep dogs of the parish” who “protect the flock in the event that something bad were to happen.”

Short, a former detective and SWAT team member with the Lewisville Police Department, is quick to point out that the training of armed Guardians is extensive and continual. He also understands the concerns of some the faithful, “Why do we even need to have armed civilians in there?”

To which he responds, “If you look at the White Settlement shooting [at West Freeway Church of Christ] that happened in December 2019, that was a clear indication of why we’re doing what we’re doing. Unfortunately, three people died in six seconds that day. Obviously, that’s a worst-case scenario, but it happened so quickly.”

The gunman in that shooting was fatally shot by 71-year-old Jack Wilson, a volunteer security team member at the church.

“We’ve seen how these kinds of things play out,” Short said. “In order to mitigate that risk, to bridge that gap, we really need people who are involved in the community, but we can’t do that with just anybody.”

Applicants for any role in Guardian Ministry are extensively screened through criminal background checks, a comprehensive personal history analysis, and go through extensive, year-round training, including scenario-based training. Armed Guardians are taught that responding with force to a threat is the last resort.

A Guardian Ministry at St. Thoams the Apostle Church

A member of the Guardian Ministry at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish stands for prayer while watching parishioners during Sunday Mass Nov. 29, 2020. 

“It’s taken very seriously because there is a great responsibility that comes with it,” Short said. “If something happens where we find somebody who is a person of concern, we have the understanding and training to be able to respond to that. We always come from the Christian perspective and want to help that person. The last thing we would want to do would be to have to utilize any kind of force.”

Ministry numbers growing – more volunteers needed

Despite a worldwide pandemic, training of new Guardian Ministry members and the creation of new teams has continued steadily.

“Over the last six months, we’ve really made strides in a lot of parishes,” Short said. “We’re getting a lot of new recruits, training a lot of folks… To date, we’ve trained almost 300 individuals” to participate in the various parts of the Guardian Ministry.

Taking advantage of Zoom livestreaming, Short has conducted online weekly and monthly training for different members of the Guardian teams, “so that we can continually keep this top of mind to better understand how an emergency response looks like in our parishes.”

Yet, more faithful Catholics are needed to continue the leading-edge security program the Diocese of Fort Worth is creating, Short said. “We haven’t stopped just because of COVID. We’re still training. We’re still recruiting.”

Parishioners interested in joining should reach out to their pastor and find out if there’s a team at their parish. “It’s a group effort,” Short said of the security program. “I think so many people benefit from it, so if it sounds like something you’re interested in, please seek it out.”

For Bruce Mallory, director of Safe Environment at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fort Worth, the creation of a trained Guardian team has made protecting their 20,285-square-foot church possible.

“If someone reports [something suspicious] up the chain, then we’ve got a strategy for how to do that. They can make us aware, we can observe, and we have enough cameras in the church to keep an eye on people inside or outside,” the armed Guardian and longtime Knight of Columbus said.

A Guardian Ministry member

A Guardian Ministry member adjusts his mask as he communicates with a team member via a radio earpiece as his team makes field sweeps outside of church before providing security for Sunday Mass at Good Shepherd Parish in Colleyville on December 6, 2020.

Thanks to the team of volunteer Guardians, not only is the parish safer, it has allowed qualified Catholics to give back to the church community by using their skills and experience.

 “We provided something where they can give back to the Church in a way that’s meaningful,” Mallory said. “And the Church is grateful for their contribution.”

For more information on the Guardian Ministry, please visit fwdioc.org/guardian-ministry.

Mark Hesselgrave, Good Shepherd Church Colleyville, Guardian Ministry, Fort Worth Diocese security, Sheep dogs, trending-english