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Tuesday June 30th, 2015 9:52PM

Church intrusion brings call for security

By Jerry Gunn
GAINESVILLE - A Gainesville church intends to become more security conscious because of an incident two weeks ago in which two non-members entered the church, bowed and raised their hands, distracting and alarming the pastor and his congregation.<br /> <br /> Pastor Wayne Hicks at New Haven Church on White Sulphur Springs Road has told members the event On August 17 was harmless and the intruders meant no harm, but it serves as a "wakeup call," and this Sunday afternoon the Hall County Sheriff's Department is conducting a church safety program for the staff and congregation. Hicks said members from at least two other area churches plan to attend.<br /> <br /> "This day and time, all churches and businesses and schools, any place where people congregate, need to be cognizant for the people who come there and for the institution itself," Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said. "We're trying to take a proactive approach in order to let our churches understand what to do in a security breach or emergency that sometimes happens. We just want keep everybody safe."<br /> <br /> The Sheriff said the program, beginning at 4:30 p.m. , will cover how to handle medical emergencies, severe weather, bomb threats, suspicious packages, a fire, and an armed or suspicious intruder.<br /> <br /> According to the Sheriff, whose officers investigated the August 17 incident, two men came into the back of the church while the pastor was delivering his sermon and before going into prayer, the men were bowing, and placing their hands above their heads and did this for about five minutes.<br /> <br /> "Members of the congregation noticed this and one of the men was wearing a backpack and this caused some concern," Couch recalled. "Three members of the congregation who were either retired or off-duty law officers went to the back of the church and asked the men to step into the foyer. They told the men they could come and be part of the service but they could not disrupt the service. The men then left the church."<br /> <br /> The Sheriff added it was not the threat that people perceived it was and the church members handled the situation in a professional manner, but it pointed to the need for safety education.<br /> <br /> "Knowledge is power and if when you get out in front of something and you learn what to do it gives you more confidence and it reassures people and that's what we want to do," the Sheriff said.<br /> <br /> Reports that the men displayed Islamic prayer behavior was much more perception than fact according to Couch. The man with the backpack reached in and took out a large book, allegedly a Koran, but law officers determined it was a Bible. Pastor Hicks said he saw a large book and was not sure what it was.<br /> <br /> "There was no language that was demonstrated," Couch said. "I think that people perceived that the bowing was outside the ordinary and with all the news from the Middle East, everybody is hypersensitive and people assumed a great deal. Luckily, we found out it was not more than that."<br /> <br /> The men were told not to behave that way in the future. Couch said the men visited another nearby church, New Holland Baptist, but not on the same day. <br /> <br /> "Churches are private property," Couch added. "The church has the right to say you can or can't come if you cause a disturbance. These two individuals are still in search of a church that's more suitable for their style of worship."<br /> <br /> Pastor Hicks said he believes the men, who he identified as James and Oscar, felt they were coming to worship, but added that he had never seen them before and has not seen them since the incident. According to Hicks, church attendance dropped but he is not sure it was because of the intrusion. He estimates there were 54 fewer members a week later at the August 24 service but said he can account for 46 of them. He believes summer vacation accounts for most of the absences.<br /> <br /> Hicks said word of the incident 'spread like wildfire' along with all kinds of stories about it. U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson heard about it at a town hall meeting he held a week ago at Lanier Village Estates and promised to look into it, but Sheriff Couch said he knew of no other agency investigating it.<br /> "We just want everybody safe and feeling secure in going to their church and worshiping as they want to," he concluded.<br />
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