As I listened to the news today, I realized our church has a choice to make.
What caught my ear was the story about the man who walked into a church in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened fire on the congregation. He left a four page note in his truck, part of which said he thought he had lost his job because of “liberals and gays.” The Knoxville Police Chief said:
It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred of the liberal movement.
My first emotion was one of deep sadness for the dear people in that congregation. As I drove on, I began to think of the similarities between the Knoxville Church and our congregation here is Durham:
- college town
- Southern city
- small congregation in a somewhat secluded setting
- liberal congregation
and I thought, “We have a choice to make as to whether we will be led, in the coming days, to act on our calling or play to our fears since, if the zip code had been different, that church could have easily been ours.
I was teaching at Winchester High School when the shootings at Columbine took place. In that instance, similarly, we were the same high school in a different zip code. One of the things I loved about the school was the corner on the second floor where all the kids threw their book bags when they got to school. To me, it signified the comfort and safety level of the students. They didn’t expect anyone to steal stuff and, for the most part, no one did. The first day of school after Columbine, the edict came that glorious stack of bags had to be removed because it was a security threat. In their fear, the administration removed the best monument to safety and community on the campus. It didn’t help and it didn’t go unnoticed.
About a week later, one of the other English teachers handed me an essay from one of her students. He was a senior who, for as many days as he had walked into the high school, always wore a long black coat. For that matter, all of his clothes were black. He was reclusive, cynical, intelligent, and often hard to reach. He admitted to all of those things as he described himself in the essay. He also went on to say as he watched the stories on the two boys who did the shootings in Colorado, he was struck by how the descriptions the reporters gave of the boys could very easily have been said of him. And he wondered out loud why he didn’t want to come to school and shoot everyone. He then went on to talk about the teachers who pushed him to be a better writer, about the art and drama classes, about the school community that made him feel safe.
He didn’t say anything about getting rid of the book bags.
Our little church is a wonderful and wounded collection of people who are deeply committed to our God and our city. We are a liberal congregation – on purpose. Many of our community have ended up there because it is a fellowship that feels safe and welcoming. We need to choose to understand our congregation is to be relished rather than defended. If we start posting deacons at the door to keep an eye out for threatening looking people, we will not be taking precautions, but we will be losing part of ourselves. Every Sunday morning, Ginger says, “As we say here at Pilgrim and in the UCC, ‘Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.’”
Whoever you are. Those words are our stack of book bags. We can’t afford to scare ourselves out of that invitation.
One of the stories that sticks with me is of a missionary to Lebanon who was in the States and preparing to return to Beirut. After a speaking engagement, someone said to her, “We will pray for you to be safe.”
“Oh, no,” answered the missionary. “If you pray for our safety, we might never get back to Lebanon. It is not safe. Pray that we will be faithful.”
This Sunday, and the ones to follow, we have a choice to make: be fearful or be faithful. Let us all pray for one another.
I’d never thought of WHS as the same high school, different zip code, but of course it is. And your description of the young man in black could easily have been my younger brother!
What strikes me is the power of community to include those who might otherwise get lost and want to come in guns blazing. For me the idea breaks down a bit in the case of what happened in Knoxville, because that man wasn’t excluded or offended by the people in that congregation — he was just after people he could paste a label on. In that sense he was more like a one-man lynch mob than the boys at Columbine.
Still, that’s the environment we live in, and I suppose we all have the same choice of fear or faithfulness, no matter what kind of church we go to.
Bravo to you and your church – well said and so true.
What a treasure your gathered community must be! I love your description and pray that you can indeed be faithful and loved and loving to whoever crosses your threshold.
Milton, thank you for this wisdom. The fear and anxiety that comes from a tragedy often produces more evil – long term – than the event itself. I remember growing up in Houston when a boy in our city died after eating poisoned Halloween candy. This was in the early 70s. What followed was a scare that ended up with people x-raying candy, claims that Satanists were putting razor blades in apples, etc. Turns out the boy’s father did it. I read last year that no child has ever been harmed by Halloween candy poisoned or tampered with by neighbors. But every year we go through the same thing. Everyone paranoid and scaring the children, giving them the idea that the people around the corner might be evil.