This is the second installment of “First-Person Target: A six-part series on fear and safety in the era of mass shootings,” a personal-participation journalistic endeavor about three years in the making.
To better understand my own feelings on these topics, I wore a bulletproof vest everywhere I went for a week. I then interviewed people I thought would have a special perspective on these issues.
Most of Saturday is spent cleaning the house, until about 3 p.m., when I get ready to go to church. It is the first time I will wear the vest out of the house and I start having second thoughts.
Amy sees me fiddling with the straps and asks in an incredulous voice, “Are you REALLY going to wear that thing to CHURCH?”
At that point, I make up my mind, thanks to both my stubborn streak and a broader understanding of the moment at hand.
“Eleven people were shot and killed in a house of worship a week ago,” I tell her. “I don’t think sitting this one out is in the best interest of what I’m trying to do here.”
Amy says she won’t go with me and that she’ll catch a Sunday morning mass, but I decide to take my daughter, Zoe, with me. Even though the church is only about three blocks away, we take the truck, with the idea of maybe going out for dinner afterwards and running a few errands.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Omro dates back to 1866, when the Gothic-style structure with clapboard sensibilities arose in the middle of this river town. The Milwaukee Diocese officially codified its presence as an institution intent on serving the many Irish immigrants who fled their homeland during the potato famine and took up farming in the area.
The wooden building with a tall bell steeple was recently wrapped in weather-resistant siding, thanks to a fundraising campaign among parishioners. The main entrance is a Gothic opening with two heavy wooden doors that are painted pewter gray open onto the Madison Avenue side of the building.
Two equal sections of pews run from the altar back to the entrance. Large, ornate stained-glass windows line the sides of the church, with small dedications to their donors noted on tiny translucent panels.
The ceiling doesn’t reach to the heights one would expect upon entering, given the giant peak visible from the outside. A butter-cream color paint covers the thatched-panels of beaver board that round the sidewalls into the ceiling with an organ loft established at the end of the room opposite the altar.
The church is relatively full for a Saturday mass, but we find seats off the outside aisle on the left-hand side of an empty pew about half way up.
Shortly before mass begins, Sister Pam, the parish director, walks briskly to the front to welcome everyone to the services and to outline a few musical elements of the upcoming mass. As she does this, two ladies in their early 60s come down the main aisle and sit in our pew, with them edging toward the right side and us gravitating toward the left.
As Sister Pam retreats to the back of the building to help lead the priest in the processional, she strides with a speed walker’s pace, her thick-heeled shoes pounding into the hardwood floor.
As the first notes of the processional hymn begin, I unzip my coat instinctively but suddenly yank it closed when the zipper hit the last Velcro strap. I feel my face flush.
Zoe looks at me.
“Daddy, are you OK?”
“Yes, peanut. Thank you.”
At 68 years of age, Sister Pam Biehl said she has no intentions of “sitting in a rocker.”
As the parish director, Biehl oversees the day-to-day operation of both the St. Mary’s Church in Omro and St. Mary’s Church in Winneconne, two cities with a collective population of less than 6,000 people.
Her “nicer” office is in the Omro church, with space for a desk and several bookshelves filled with religious texts and spiritual knick-knacks. A few inspirational sayings are neatly stenciled on the walls. To create a more intimate environment, she eschewed using the chairs near her desk that would separate her from a visitor and instead suggested a triad of padded wooden chairs near the entrance. Their proximity to one another gave a sense that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit could huddle there before providing inspiration to those in the gathering place down the hall.
As this interview progressed, Biehl stared forward with an intense expression, as if through sheer will she would fully understand how she could have missed seeing a man in her church wearing a bulletproof vest during a Saturday mass.
“Nobody said a word,” she said with a look of astonishment on her face. “Not a word. I totally was not aware… I’m not sure. When I’m up in front, I’m so attentive to so many things, I would have registered it, but I don’t know if I would have thought about it that long.”
Biehl was born and raised in Chicago and said she wanted to join the convent after eighth grade, but her dad convinced her to spend at least one year of high school before making that choice.
Once in high school, Biehl said she became actively involved in councils, groups and organizations, which pushed the idea of a religious order to the back of her mind for a few years. As graduation neared, she had considered going to college for a year before committing to a convent.
“I had been communicating with our vocation director from the mother house that had the sisters who had taught me… and she said, ‘No, no, no,’” Biehl said. “She said the exact opposite: ‘You go to the convent.’ And I think to this day that I would not have gone had she not said that. I always say I owe my vocation to her.”
Biehl did attend college as part of her vocation, attending Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in Manitowoc and learning to become a teacher. She started teaching in Waukesha shortly after graduation, before heading west, where she taught in Nebraska, Arizona and California. Eventually, she came full circle, returning to Manitowoc where she became a campus minister.
As a “hobby,” she conducted liturgy workshops and taught teachers how to work with children as part of the ministry.
“I made it up as I went along and I said maybe I should get some schooling, so I know what I’m talking about,” she said. “I asked the community if I could go back to school, and they said, ‘Sure.’”
With her master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame in hand, Biehl became a director of liturgy and ritual at St. Raphael’s in Oshkosh in 1994. Thirteen years later, she landed in Omro as parish director where she oversees both St. Mary’s there and in nearby Winneconne.
“It was the grace of God that I got the job because they lost my files,” she said of her current post. “They didn’t even know I was in the system.”
As the director, Biehl said she has dealt with the issue of concealed-carry and parish safety over the past decade or so. When Wisconsin passed “right-to-carry” legislation, several places were exempted and were allowed to post signs that alerted people to the “weapons-free zones.”
The church is not one of those places, she said.
“It’s come up and we were told we can’t put that sign on the door,” she said. “I can’t remember why, but we did receive notice a couple years ago that we can’t post it.”
As far as people who actually carry, Biehl said no one has ever mentioned carrying a gun in church or asked for her thoughts on the matter.
“There could be somebody in church who has one,” she said. “Someone might have one in their purse. I’ve never come across anyone asking me about it… That doesn’t mean anyone isn’t.”
After the procession, the priest opens with an explanation that today we all will honor the memories of the parishioners who died this year.
Sr. Pam had 11 candles set up at the front of the church, one for each of the departed. As each name is read, a family member is invited to come to the front of the church and light a candle in their honor. The women who joined us in our pew a few moments earlier stand up and head to the front when the name of their loved one was read.
I keep thinking about the number 11.
Eleven people in our parish died in a year, while 11 were shot and killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in less than 10 minutes. I didn’t know any of the people in our parish who died, but I know in almost painful detail who died in that shooting and how they met their end.
I try shaking that out of my head, but the priest’s homily is about how he kept looking to God for signs that his recently deceased mother wanted him to do something. He said he kept seeing sandhill cranes each time he asked for a sign, so I keep thinking about how nothing really is coincidental in life.
I wear my jacket, even though I feel hot. I attribute a great deal of the warmth to the adrenaline that I can almost sense pouring into my bloodstream throughout the mass.
I have it unzipped, which mean the “Second Chance” straps and the padded plating are visible. The weight of the vest, which I previously dismissed as inconsequential, has become an issue after a short amount of time. Also, no matter how many times I adjust the straps, I feel the vest tightening around me each time I move and about half the time I breathe. However, I still don’t feel ready to take the jacket off. I am already well aware that I am wearing this thing and I find it horribly distracting.
In other ways, it makes me more attuned to certain things I tend to say or do in church without thinking about them. I suddenly become hyper-aware of how many times we mention death in our faith. Also, how many times we talk about evil as a concept, as opposed to the manifestation of it and what it can do to people.
I also realize the main two entrances are behind me and that only a small side door kitty-corner from my position will let me out if someone came in the main entrance with a gun.
I occasionally find myself able to forget about the vest for a moment or two, like just after the homily when we are all quiet for a second. However, when I look down to grab a hymnal, I see the straps and I snap back into a spiraling panic about what I am wearing. This thing is meant to keep me alive if someone suddenly decides to start shooting at me.
It also dawns on me that even this thing might not keep me safe if a shooter has evil intent and the desire to end me.
As a parish director, Biehl’s thoughts about life after a horrifying event, like a mass shooting, tend to gravitate toward the people she serves.
“My first thought, the boss in me says, ‘Oh my gosh, what if that happened to me?’” she said. “What would we be doing now? How would I respond? How could I be the pastor of that place? How could I pastor to those people?”
“I think about how to help people deal with it,” she added. “And what I think we struggle with and I come back to this all the time is we’re not good living in mystery. Not knowing why. Why a synagogue? Why? OK, so a man was angry and we find out he was anti-Semitic so he killed Jews. OK, but why that one? Why?”
In the times of pain and suffering, people often seek answers in religion, even when those answers seem unlikely to satisfy them. Biehl said that her work with parishioners who experience losses and despair requires her to help these people understand how faith can assist them.
“I have never had to deal with that kind of a tragedy,” she said. “But I’ve had to deal with people who have taken their lives, I have dealt with car accidents, things that are not as horrible but horrible in that moment. I say to people ‘God gave us that free will and people make bad choices,’ and I don’t mean to make it simplistic but what I work hard at is having people understand that God is still with us.”
As people struggle for answers, they often will turn to bad or erroneous justifications just to have some solid ground for themselves, Biehl said. She recalled a story in which a child died and the parents struggled to understand the loss.
She said she asked the parents if they considered that they had done something wrong as to incur punishment from God. In asking this question, she explained to the parents that it was likely they would look deep inside themselves and find something they did wrong, such as a theft they might have committed, to rationalize the loss.
“Somewhere in the depth of your being you will acknowledge that and you maybe won’t accept that but you’ll say, ‘Well, maybe that could be true… so maybe that’s how God is punishing me,’” she said. “Somehow in the back of your mind I believe, you now feel that you have an answer. It’s a horrible answer, a wrong answer, a totally wrong answer, but you have one.”
The Roman Catholic Church itself is laden with mystery and faith, often relying on the concept that seemingly negative outcomes represent our lack of understanding in God’s larger purpose. In allowing for the all-knowing nature of God, Biehl said she doesn’t want people to think God intentionally inspires mass shootings and other tragedies within his creations.
“So often I hear, ‘Well, that’s part of God’s plan,’” she said. “That is not God’s plan. I will never believe that my God would ever plan any of that.”
Instead of seeking the “why” behind tragedies or attributing them to “God’s plan,” Biehl said she tries to help people continue living when something horrible happens.
“I think, ‘How would I speak to my people?’” she said. “’What would I say to them?’ And I would say, ‘God is weeping. God is weeping with us.’ And the question is to say to God, not why did this happen, but now that this has happened this horrible thing happened, how will you help me through this? How will you walk with me, how will you show me the way so that tomorrow I can put one foot in front of the other when I can barely, I can barely breathe right now.”
Church might have be the ideal place for a first public appearance in this vest. Because everyone faces forward, nobody can really tell anything about how I look from the back. The vest doesn’t seem to be an issue and nobody seems to notice. However, in various parts of a Catholic mass, people interact with each other, and that thought niggles at the corner of my mind throughout the mass.
The church takes up a collection while the priest prepares the altar for the consecration of the bread and wine. This offering of financial support for the institution involves people passing wicker baskets throughout the rows of pews and dropping in cash or parish envelopes to help support the place.
The woman in front of me turns to pass me the basket and I think it is the first time anyone really sees what I am wearing. She hands it off as she looks away quickly. Zoe tosses in a couple bucks, hands it to me and I pass it down the pew to keep the process going. The people next to me take it, look at me and smile. On it goes.
The next point in which we interact is the sign of peace, in which the priest invites us to shake hands with people around us.
I shake Zoe’s hand first and give her a hug before I turn around to greet a married couple in their 30s was behind me. I shake hands with each person and don’t get a reaction. I shake hands with one of the women next to me. No problem.
I then reach to shake hands with the woman who had handed me the basket. She finishes shaking hands with someone in front of her, but refuses to turn back toward me.
She stands ramrod still and pulls her arms in at the sides and doesn’t move, even as I accidentally brush my arm against the sleeve of her coat, while I shake hands with a lady sporting a tight, poodle perm hairstyle two pews in front of me.
The woman has to be in her 60s or 70s. She is shorter than Zoe, so I peg her at about 4-foot-10 or so. She has a bony build with relatively larger hands that are gnarled with arthritis. She is wearing thin, silver-framed oval glasses and her gray hair is styled into a mushroom-cap haircut. Her face, what I can see of it, would be best described as “beaky.”
When it comes time to go up for communion, she skitters to the end of the pew quickly. She doesn’t say anything to anyone, not even the usher, a tall woman who has to be no more than 30 years old, wearing a fleece vest and a name tag indicating her role at the church.
The usher, on the other hand, had looked in at me a bit strangely when she was monitoring the collection, but she didn’t treat me any differently. When it is my turn to enter the aisle to go down front for communion, I extend my hand to her.
“Peace be with you,” I say to the usher.
“And also with you,” she replies, smiling and shaking my hand.
I outlined my experience with the woman in front of me in mass as part of the interview with Biehl. She said nobody spoke with her about seeing me and no one raised an issue, but she can understand the anxiety I provoked in this person.
“She must have thought you were going to do something harmful and then I think (if it were me) I would think, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t probably think you were there to do something good,’” Biehl said.
I apologized anyway, explaining that for me, church has always been a sanctuary of sorts. I find that I do some of my best thinking inside of a house of worship. In some cases, that’s finding answers to personal problems or finding strength when facing difficult emotional situations.
Of all the things I remembered about church in each stage in my life, the biggest one was a sense of safety and comfort in those buildings. The calm hand of God somehow found me each time and made me feel protected, even though I knew full well I was nowhere near as good of a Catholic as I could or should have been.
“We’ll never be totally safe… I’ve thought about that every time there’s a shooting,” Biehl said. “It’s everywhere. It’s in the malls now. Where has there not been somebody who shot a group of people? Churches, malls, the synagogue, Las Vegas and in the schools.”
“No matter how much we sit and put together a safety manual, if people want to kill you, I think they will kill you…” she added. “I don’t think there’s a way to keep us totally safe.”
With that in mind, the Earthly element of Biehl’s job takes hold.
She said the Green Bay Diocese, which oversees the parish, created a pamphlet with guidance on safety measures for all of its churches. The diocese recommended meeting with the police and the schools in the area to see how they monitor safety and what they do to help keep people out of danger in the event of an attack.
In response to that prompt, the church will add a camera at the door to allow people to see who is outside the side entrance near the parish offices, Biehl said. She also said that the “church of many doors” as she calls it, will undergo some police scrutiny for additional ways to create a safer environment for workers and worshipers.
“You can do a little added security, but I’m not going to have guns at the door,” Biehl said. “I’m not going to have guards at the door.”
When we return to our pews after communion, I kneel in prayer, noticing the woman with the silver glasses is still there and kneeling as well. As the rest of the congregation receives the Eucharist, the cantor sings “On Eagle’s Wings.”
And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.
For some reason, the song seems to get louder each verse.
You need not fear the terror of the night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Though thousands fall about you,
Near you it shall not come.
I glance up from prayer and notice the woman in front of me is moving her head around in sharp, darting glances as if she were looking for someone or something. She looks panicked.
And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.
As the priest returns to his seat, the woman sits back into her pew. I have my hand on the back of the pew as I lift up the kneeler and she leans right back onto me. Out of instinct, I apologize.
She doesn’t flinch or look back.
I am grateful Zoe hasn’t noticed any of this.
Before we get into the final blessing and dismissal song, Sister Pam always whips out a thin white binder that has a list of the 912 things that are going on at the parish that week that require our attention.
Today, we need to do a second collection for disaster relief, so the baskets come around again.
This collection is a lot quicker than the first one, as people tend not to contribute as much or as often when the church hits them up twice. The usher keeps things humming until the basket reaches the woman in front of me.
She takes the basket and holds it for a second, as she looks at the usher almost like she wants something to happen or is afraid something might occur.
Then, without looking, she pushes the basket at me over her shoulder. I take it, toss in some cash and then pass it along.
As Sister Pam keeps talking, the woman continues craning her neck in sharp short movements as if she is desperate to get someone’s attention. I think about just leaving, but I realize that if I do anything, it will draw more attention and possibly upset more people, so I basically stay put.
Once the final song ends, the woman rushes into the aisle and moves toward the door quickly. We file out the side aisle, with Zoe hopping in front of a couple people who were heading out, nearly knocking into them.
“Sorry,” I say.
They smiled and both say something along the lines of, “That’s OK.”
I zip up my coat and follow my kid who is weaving her way toward the big exit doors in the back.
“I guess everybody’s in a hurry to get home.”
At the heart of so many social issues, is the balance between safety and fear. Finding the right mix between the two remains a difficult balancing act, Biehl said.
“I think the word fear is so important,” she said. “We are so afraid. How many times in the Gospel does God say, ‘Do not fear, be not afraid.’ I think that is the key. Fear.”
Biehl said she relies on her faith in God and what he has provided to her and her parish to come up with better ways to mitigate disaster and fear at the same time. The police have offered her advice in regard to ways to add cameras and establish behaviors that can tighten safety at the church. She said a subcommittee is working with her, the police and other outside agencies to improve the situation.
“I just pray that I don’t want to be paranoid,” she said. “I’m rooted in my faith, but I don’t want to get crazy thinking about this. If you think about that too much, you’re going to be crazy…God expects us to use our intelligence, so yes, we will look at the situation, call in the people we need to make our church secure, act more vigilant but we’re not going to be crazy.”
“I walk the walk because I know God is with me,” she added. “I say to God every morning, ‘If you want me to do this work, you’re going to have to keep me alive.’”