Fargo church tells lawmakers about armed guards for its congregation
On any given Sunday, a handful of members of the Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Fargo may be wearing a black shirt and an earpiece -- much like a federal agent.
They may have an array of medical or law enforcement training -- some are retired police officers or military members -- who provide security for upwards of 2,000 churchgoers that attend every week.
A select few may even be strapped with a concealed weapon under their Sunday best.
Senior Pastor Matthew St. John said Wednesday the program, known as Gatekeepers, has been very successful since it was implemented four years ago and has been well received by the Fargo Police Department -- who has provided some training for the program, he said.
"When you have hundreds of kids and adults moving around on any given Sunday, you want to take care of them," St. John said. "We want an environment with a recognized (security) presence, understated, but recognized."
The Gatekeeper program came to light Tuesday after David Nerud, a member of Gatekeepers, told the state legislature's House Judiciary Committee that he has been carrying a concealed weapon into the church as part of the program.
Nerud, a 20-year military veteran and chief executive officer of Blue Cord Security Consulting, was testifying in favor of House Bill 1283, which would allow church and school officials to determine whether concealed weapon permit holders can carry a firearm into the church or school.
Current law forbids anybody, even some with a concealed weapons permit, from carrying a weapon into public places, but exempts professionally-trained individuals, such as law enforcement officers, active duty military members and a few others.
"I think it's a great idea, there's a reason people target churches because they know weapons are not allowed there," Nerud said. " If we do turn it around and say, 'yes, let weapons be allowed there,' it would deter people."
Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-Fargo, introduced the bill after hearing a pastor's life was threatened and knowing state law forbids an individual from carrying a firearm into a public place.
"There should be no reason they shouldn't be allowed to if the leadership of particular school or church asks someone to do this," Koppelman told the committee Tuesday. "They have some proficiency and pass a test regarding firearms."
St. John said the program has been a huge success, attributing it to the professionalism of Gatekeepers' 30 members and its leader, Pastor Paul Bond, a retired Los Angeles police officer.
The group is setup with three levels, all with varying abilities and responsibilities, according to St. John.
The first level provides help and assistance by individuals with no training or background in security; "their responsibility is just to be a presence," he said.
The second level gives more responsibilities to individuals with some form of training who know what to do in case of an emergency.
"They help de-escalate a situation," St. John said.
The third level consists of very few members who are licensed peace officers or active duty or retired law enforcement personnel that can legally carry a concealed weapon in public, St. John said.
Nerud said members have to apply to become a Gatekeeper, despite the individual's level of training, with an application process that includes background checks, fingerprinting and a review board.
Other church leaders have heard about the program and have attended Bethel to see it first hand, St. John said.
"There's a real hunger amongst churches for being wise when it comes to security," he said.
The church is taking the lead with the type of security program, and believes it can provide good information for those church leaders that are interested, he said.
"We feel a responsibility to be a resource in the community," he said. "With our size and scope, we want to be good stewards and serve as best we can. If we can help, we want to."