When the Gunman Walked Into My Church

When the Gunman Walked Into My Church

Learning the fundamentals of emergency preparedness.

Illustration Credit: Total Eclipse by Kelly Rae Burns

In late 1989, like many college-age kids with a spirit of adventure, I traveled during a gap semester to Guatemala to immerse myself in the Spanish language. I was enchanted by the architecture, the blend of cultures, and Tikal, the jungle where George Lucas filmed part of Star Wars. I moved about with ordinary precautions and felt carefree about the rigors of travel.

I soon located a church affiliated with the church I had grown up attending, and made my way there for the Sunday service. Afterward, I stayed for the normal happy hubbub of handshakes and chatter, gradually drifting out into the hallway.

Then one of the members quietly and firmly said, “You need to come back into the auditorium, now!” He ushered us in, and soon we were seated in a circle. It slowly but sharply dawned on me that we were in an emergency. A man had walked into the church with a gun, and claimed to have grenades in his bag. He told us not to call the police, or he would start shooting. The entire congregation had been taken hostage.

Church was a place I had long associated with prayer and comfort, drawing great strength in that community, and in learning life lessons from the Bible. While this was not a story I had studied, we were all in prayer mode, and our first response was quiet alertness, not hysteria. One church member, a young mother, assumed the role of negotiator, and there was rapid give-and-take between her and the man with hate streaming out of his eyes. He knew that Christian churches take up a collection at each meeting, and he appeared willing to kill us to get it.

I don’t know how long we sat there. I do know that we were each digging deep within ourselves to help in whatever way we could. For the most part, that meant keeping quiet and still. But it also meant praying. At one point our negotiator invited all of us to join in praying the Lord’s Prayer aloud. Padre Nuestro, que estás en los Cielos . . . I prayed in earnest, slipping beyond the boundary of my mother tongue, deep into the realm of the heart. The concepts in that prayer provided comfort. It was something bigger than us, and it had influence in our lives, especially at that moment.

The dialogue continued, and with it, the hatred eased out of the man’s eyes. He departed the church, not with money, but with church literature. With a flood of tears of relief, our negotiator grabbed her baby and insisted that we all leave the premises at once.

Over 25 years have passed since that Sunday in Guatemala, but I still occasionally find myself mulling over the details—and becoming even more grateful for having developed a sturdy habit of prayer. At some point, I came to realize that what I learned that day underpinned in my work in emergency preparedness and international security, fighting against nuclear proliferation. As I moved in circles of increasing influence, I maintained the knowledge that I had seen prayer lead to a favorable outcome for all involved.

Today, I meditate. I pray. These and similar habits can give each of us the presence of mind to influence the outcome of each moment of the day, whatever crosses our paths. A person might be able to take your body hostage. But you retain entire control of your mind if you develop habits that strengthen your relationship with your thoughts.

Safety comes from practical application of emergency preparedness, from forming habits that instill clarity of thought and action, and from presence of mind. Calm presence of mind enables you to become a force for good, for a beneficial outcome to emergency situations. It instills a knowing that instantly kicks into gear, whether from a sudden illness, a natural disaster, or any disruption of the normal routine. If you have a well-established habit that brings inner calm, you can turn to it, rely upon it, and have a significantly different experience than an inflammatory reaction might bring. “Cooler heads will prevail” is a favored turn of words. Find your particular path to having one of those “cooler heads.”

What you can do

If You Have a Minute…

Pray, meditate, or practice affirmations in front of a mirror to become centered and quiet.

If You Have an Hour…

Take time to establish your personal emergency checklist and figure out what to do if something goes haywire. Your goal is to be a center of calm in any storm.

If You Have a Month…

Establish a daily practice—whether of prayer or meditation—and let it become your center. It takes 21 days to develop a new habit. Make a consistent effort. You’ll thank yourself.

If You Have One Hundred Dollars…

Donate to a nonprofit that is dedicated to building understanding, such as the Euphrates Institute, which holds hope for peace in the Middle East (

Meggen Watt Petersen worked for two decades to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and now lends her calm presence to the inner workings of this magazine.

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