Caution and concern: Protecting places of worship forum highlights safety, security

Leaders of the local Shar’arei Shalom Reform Jewish Congregation no longer publicize their meeting place to worship. And local Muslims have had a uniformed police officer on hand for some of its gatherings at its mosque.

Those were just two elements of significant caution or concern — elements not normally highlighted publicly — that surfaced at Tuesday’s Protecting Places of Worship Forum at Columbus City Hall.

The Columbus Human Rights Commission organized the three-hour event that attracted about 60 people from across the local and regional religious landscape, including Christians, Hindus, Unitarian Universalists and others. Some of those on hand, such as Phil Miles from Community Church of Columbus, actively work with area houses of worship on a broad range of safety and security issues.

The Department of Justice and the FBI reached out to the Columbus Human Rights Commission about the chance to educate the public after identifying southern Indiana as an area needing awareness.

Leaders of the night’s panel discussions ranged from Lt. Matt Harris of the Columbus Police Department discussing active shooter response to FBI and Department of Homeland Security experts discussing everything from building vulnerability assessments to federal grants to implement security measures.

But a closing, six-person panel with local faith leaders was among the most telling moments of the gathering — especially in a culturally diverse community that regularly touts and celebrates its colorful mix via events such as the upcoming Ethnic Expo international festival.

Lesley Reuter, vice president of the reform Jewish congregation in Columbus, mentioned that national violence against Jews dramatically affects those practicing Judaism here. She said that has been especially true after the antisemitic terrorist attack in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2018 left 11 people dead and six wounded.

“There definitely have been a lot of people quite worried (about safety),” Reuter said. “It’s at least in the back of everyone’s mind.”

She added that having to be careful about telling others about its worship locale “makes it hard to increase numbers (attending).”

Yousuf Mayet, president of the Islamic Center of Columbus, said the Muslims want to strike a balance between being open and welcoming while also being responsible about security.

“We don’t want to appear exclusive,” Mayet said.

Younger members of the Islamic center probably struggle the most with fear because of hatred that has surfaced elsewhere in the nation and world, he said.

“The youth that we have are very scared of identifying themselves as Muslim,” Mayet said.

Prasad Kondapi, president of the Sri Ganesh Mandir Hindu temple, mentioned that Hindus have used uniformed police officers as a precaution, and also have extensively reached out to surrounding neighbors in and around Goeller Boulevard to educate them that Hindus want to be good, warm and inviting neighbors. He said there is more awareness that can be spread.

“I think there is still a slight fear in people,” Kondapi said.

The Rev. Felipe Martinez, pastor of First Presbyterian Church that was hit with spray-painted graffiti more than two years ago when it displayed Pride flags, emphasized that he wants to avoid acting on fear and focusing on it.

“We’re doing what we’re doing in ministry out of a sense of love,” Martinez said. “Otherwise, everything eventually could become about being afraid.

“Also, our safety and security must be about the whole community. It cannot be only about police (protection).”

Aida Ramirez, Columbus Human Rights Commission director, said there could be more such meetings as Tuesday’s sometime in the future.

“We want to do more events like this to educate the public,” she said. “Anything involving fighting hate or bias is something we want to be involved in.”

For more information

Materials and contacts highlighted at Tuesday’s Protecting Places of Worship Forum can be accessed via the Columbus Human Rights Commission at 812-376-2532 or [email protected]