LAS CRUCES, N.M. (Christian Examiner) - Local police and federal investigators are still trying to piece together who is responsible for two church bombings that occurred Aug. 2, as both churches explore new safety measures.
Brian Finnegan, an assistant special agent in charge with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had few new details to share with reporters in a press conference Aug. 3, but stressed that members of the community should call the FBI's toll-free hotline with any information or tips that might lead to the arrest of the person responsible for the damage caused to both Calvary Baptist Church, 1800 S. Locust St., and Holy Cross Catholic Church, 1237 N. Miranda St., just three miles apart.
"Someone out there saw something; someone out there knew something," Finnegan said. "And if this actor is listening, turn yourself in. Get this over with. We know you're looking over your shoulder. We know you want to do the right thing and turn yourself in and to confess to this crime. Please do so as quickly as possible."
Investigators have completed their on-site investigations and have sent their compiled evidence to a laboratory for further forensic examination. While Finnegan acknowledged the two bombings are being investigated as a similar event, given the proximity of times and locations of the explosions, he declined to say whether the two are specifically connected.
Officials are also not revealing details about what caused the explosions, only that they were improvised explosive devices with the potential to cause serious injury or death if someone had been nearby when the detonations occurred. Photos of the blast locations revealed mostly shattered and broken glass, and a spot where a mailbox once hung.
Churches grateful that damage was minimal
A camera in the Holy Cross service recorded the loud popping noise the parishioners heard when the bomb went off outside the doors where Mass was being given, startling Monsignor John Anderson. Though he resumed his sermon shortly after, the video shows a police officer walking to the front of the church and asking the congregation to calmly exit the building.
The explosion that occurred at Calvary Baptist did not stop services from continuing. Scott Rodgers, associate pastor at Calvary, told the New York Times that after preparing 3 days on one message, by Saturday he'd felt it necessary to change his message and prepared something on the story of David and Goliath. Sunday morning, after the explosion, he shared that message with his congregation, seated in metal folding chairs in the church parking lot.
"What I [told them] is that when in the midst of difficult situations, we need to, rather than look at the size of our problem, we need to look at the size of our God," Rodgers said. "It provided a great deal of comfort."
Both Calvary Baptist and Holy Cross are reviewing safety and security procedures with other church members and officials and hope to move forward and put these incidents behind them.
On Monday, Rodgers wasn't sure when the church might implement additional safety procedures but said they are exploring options, including contracting security guards for services.
Deacon David McNeill Jr., the chancellor and general counsel for the Diocese of Las Cruces, which oversees Holy Cross Catholic Church, said they will also begin a review of safety practices at all of its churches.
"There's no one-size-fits-all solution for each church," McNeill said. "They all have different needs. Some are large, some are small, and security would have to be handled to accordingly."
The diocese plans to conduct an "inventory" of its churches' safety practices, said McNeill, and help their churches identify additional safety measures that need to be implemented. Currently, each church is responsible for its own safety practices.
More churches need security plans
Carl Chinn, author of the book Evil Invades Sanctuary, is a church security professional who was one of the security volunteers at New Life Church in Colorado in 2007 when a gunman opened fire after a Sunday service, killing two and injuring three before taking his own life.
He shared his concern with Christian Examiner that both targets in the New Mexico explosions were churches.
"That was no accident," said Chinn, who has tracked reports on church violence since 1999. "They could have attacked anywhere and gotten attention, but the attention wasn't enough - they also wanted to make a statement."
"There is a growing threat to churches and [the Emanuel AME church shooting] in South Carolina exemplified that. Churches are a softer target than most places. I have very little doubt the reason [the Charleston shooter] passed on two or three other targets of consideration was due to their security."
Referring to the 26-year-old man at Emanuel AME, Tywanza Sanders, who reportedly positioned himself between the gunman and his aunt before being shot, Chinn said that more churches need to identify and train those who are willing to protect others.
"That young man had protection in his DNA," said Chinn. "Every church needs to discover those in their congregation who have that type of protective nature, and allow them to get a little training and become intentional and calculated in their efforts to protect others."
"There are a lot of things churches can do to be intentional, but putting men and women like Tywanza Sanders into motion to watch (and intervene if needed), allows the pastoral team to stay focused on the ministry's primary purpose while others watch for danger," Chinn said.