By Natalie Romano
SAN BERNARDINO—More than 300 faith leaders gathered at the Diocesan Pastoral Center on Nov. 17 for the Fifth Annual Ark of Safety Forum and a lesson in how to survive an active shooter.
Event organizers added a tension-filled dose of reality when they simulated an attack during the conference. An intruder armed with a toy gun stormed the conference room and began firing foam balls, forcing those nearby to subdue her. The Tactical Response Cadre, a team of Rancho Cucamonga Deputies and Firefighters, lead the exercises that had everyone out of their seats and ready to strike. Consultant Barbara Babcock was one of the first to enter the fray.
“Could I do this? Could I take a trash can and bang someone over the head? Heck yeah I could!” said Babcock, reflecting after the ambush.
Ark of Safety is a regional interfaith program that provides disaster preparedness training to churches in Inland Southern California. This year’s Forum offered faith leaders a chance to learn lifesaving skills that they could bring back to their houses of worship.
The tragic mass shooting that claimed 26 lives in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church had occurred just 12 days before, lending some urgency to a key message of the conference – be on the lookout for a potential attacker in your midst, and be prepared to act. According to the Tactical Response Cadre, gone are the days of basic earthquake and fire drills…what churches need now is self-defense.
“The open environment that churches offer allows them to be a more susceptible target. The whole ideology is to welcome the community,” explains Ofer Lichtman, Rancho Cucamonga Fire District Tactical Response Coordinator. “We have to leverage that goodness into action or we’re not utilizing all our tools.”
The conference covered topics like recognizing danger, escaping an attack, and disarming a suspect. While Babcock played the hero, Bianca Marrufo played the villain. She was told to shoot into the crowd no matter what. Marrufo thought the experience taught her the terrorist mentality.
“I felt bad doing it in a sense because that would not be my nature to go and hurt people that way. But when people started throwing things at me, I had a goal to shoot and that didn’t distract me,” explained the Administrative Assistant at Sacred Heart Church, Rancho Cucamonga.
Following the drills, attendees saw the real thing; graphic video from mass shootings like the Oct. 1 attack at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. Lichtman told the crowd that watching was a necessary evil.
“This is the reality we live in,” he said. “We have to show you this stuff that you unfortunately might see in this type of environment. If the first time you see it is with an active shooter or during an act of terrorism, we’re already behind the ball.”
Disturbing but effective, says Jose Gomez, after seeing that many of the victims in the footage react too late.
“I could definitely see myself as one of those people,” admits Gomez, a Knight of Columbus based at St. James Parish, Perris. “It kind of surprised me it could be that quick.”
Gomez says he wants to be ready to protect his priest and parish.
“You have to be prepared in case God puts you in a position where you have to step up and help someone, maybe someone dear to you.”
Pastor Brian Williams of Ecclesia Christian Fellowship in San Bernardino signed up for the forum following the Sutherland Springs church shootings.
“I was actually in a meeting at the time and we prayed for the situation,” he said. “It was devastating and made me think of our vulnerability as a church.”
Other faith leaders have concerns that go beyond the walls of the church. Father Manuel Cardoza, Pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in San Bernardino, says he thinks about what could happen when his parishioners are outside in processions or festivals.
“It would be very easy to panic but we have to do the opposite,” he says. “So now I have to do the work and be trained. How can I ask others if I don’t first? We not only have to prepare for end times but for everyday times.”
Tactical Cadre members taught at the Ark of Safety Forum that you can’t wait for a first responder, you have to be the first responder.
“The folks here are going to be the ones providing initial treatment. We’re after the fact. This training is going to make a difference,” says San Bernardino County Deputy David Rayenhartz.
That’s why the team teaches assessment and treatment of injuries. After watching demonstrations, faith leaders were handed their own tourniquets to try out. Pastor Williams sprawled out on the floor while fellow staff wrapped up his mock wounds.
“The most interesting part was that hands on experience. We had a real opportunity to practice,” says Williams.
When The Tactical Cadre ended its training, Jessica Alexander of Grace Chapel in San Bernardino gave a keynote speech that focused on the role of faith communities in the aftermath of a crisis. Alexander recounted her experience of helping those affected by the North Park Elementary School shooting that occurred in San Bernardino last April.
The annual Ark of Safety Forum was hosted by Building Resilient Communities and State Senator Mike Morrell, 23rd District. Sen. Morrell also used the occasion to present a plaque honoring Bishop Gerald Barnes for his 25th Episcopal Anniversary.
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.