By Carolyn Tomlin
Contributing Writer, B&R
On Nov. 5, in the peaceful community of Sutherland Springs, Texas, a lone gunman opened fire in the First Baptist Church, killing 26 people and injuring about 20. In this small community of about 400 people, people knew their neighbors. Many were related family members. Among those killed were several children and youth — friends and siblings of those who survived.
In the past several years, other churches and Christian schools have experienced random acts of violence. Pastors and church leaders are searching for ways to help those who survive and deal with this unexpected carnage.
Justin Wainscott, pastor of First Baptist Church, Jackson, noted: “First and foremost, I think we have to grieve with them and be patient with them as they try to process the pain they’ve suffered. Then, I think we consistently show them love and joy and compassion. And finally, we keep praying for them and pointing them to Jesus, who will not only fill them with hope but will one day wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Hopefully, your church or Christian school will never experience this grief. However, if it should occur, do you have trained staff and leaders ready to help children and youth? Is there a plan in place? One of the best approaches in dealing with such a situation is to be prepared. Here are some ways to help children and youth cope:
- Encourage strong interactions with a safe and caring adult. Train adults who work with children to build nurturing relationships based on a sense of trust. Schedule workshops on developing trust between adults and children.
- Teach this verse: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3, NIV).
- Allow the child to lead. Adults may want to talk about the violent situation they have experienced. Kids may not express their feelings this way. What they saw or experienced may come out in play or drawings.
- Learn to listen. Listen with all your senses. If a child wants to talk, observe their facial features, body language, hand gestures — even fidgeting. These characteristics may tell you more than the words they speak.
- Avoid details, but be honest. Older children may be able to understand the situation. Younger children may not. Answer questions in an honest way. Otherwise children will make up stories that happen, which may be worse than the actual event.
- Provide comfort animals. Across our nation, many institutions are bringing in comfort animals when a violent situation takes place. Children who have experienced stress and suffering often respond to a gentle dog, a purring kitten, or a soft bunny. Animals such as these offer unconditional love and acceptance.
- Be truthful as to promises. Children depend on adults to keep them safe. Refrain from making promises that you may not be able to follow through. Instead, tell children, “I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe and protect you.”
- Know your physical surroundings. In case of a violent act, do you know the emergency exits? Are heavy metal doors separating your class from the hallway? Is there a safe room in your church for weather related disasters? Is there an intercom or communication system throughout the building?
- Teach children to follow instructions. Most important: children should learn to obey a teacher immediately. Learning this important rule could be the difference in survival. A church should be a peaceful place where all people feel safe. We know this isn’t always true. Practice safety drills. Practice moving quickly and quietly. Practice following directions.
- Keep lines of communication open between the church and home. Children may act differently when at home with parents or caregivers, as compared to being in church programs. If a child is showing unusual stress after a period of time, you may relate your feeling to the parent. Options could include a visit to the child’s doctor.
Violence in churches and Christian schools appears to be rising. Keeping children safe and helping them cope with violence, if it happens, is a concern for Southern Baptist churches.