When a Stranger Brings a Duffle-Bag to Church

Yesterday, at church, a stranger in military fatigues sat in the front pew with a zipped duffle-bag beside him. He was enthusiastic in his participation. He might have been homeless. And God help me, I kept an eye on that bag. Just as we finished the hymn before the sermon, the man grabbed his bag and walked toward the back of the church. Was he headed out, maybe? Or into the balcony that overlooks the congregation? It turns out that he wandered downstairs, to what I call the mingle bin, where he waited to visit with us over coffee and donut holes.

I didn’t talk to him, but he seemed to be a lovely man—a Vietnam vet. I hope he enjoyed our music, and our quiet, or at least our air conditioning. I hope he didn’t notice that at least some of us imagined scenarios of our diving under the pews, or shielding the children, or even jumping on top of the guy from our vantage in the choir loft. It’s all laughable—we altos of vengeance—until it’s not.

Now a church must be a welcoming place. By definition, it’s a sanctuary. It must especially welcome the stranger. It should certainly welcome the homeless. But according to Business Insider, we’ve had 158 mass shootings* in 2018 alone, where (as of June 28) we have gone 177 days into the year.  According to MassShootingTracker.org, 338 US mass shootings had occurred in 2017, by the start of October. There are, of course, only 365 days in a year.  On top of that, we can all remember the church shooting in Texas, and the one in South Carolina, and the one that killed members of a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. So, yeah, I kept an eye on the guy’s duffle-bag.

We liberal churchy types are in an odd spot. Now, more than ever, we want to keep our doors open to those whom society has sought to remove. A few years ago, my own denomination featured a national television ad where we showed conservative churches ejecting undesirables from their pews—the way Trumpers now seek to eject certain people from our border and our military. The liberal church, now more than ever, must declare that because all people enjoy extreme human dignity, all people** enjoy a place before God.

But in the meantime, we say, please don’t shoot us. In the meantime, my church has devised a crisis plan that involves calling police when most necessary, and not calling them at any other point, so that people in our church who are afraid of police can feel that much safer. In the meantime, my church has to stand publicly for the causes we believe in, while we know our stance is at cross purposes with the demographic that has the most guns (and committed the most shootings).

We have to think about all of this—how to become both wise as serpents and gentle as doves. And as I confronted these things in the time it takes to go from prelude to postlude, I decided on a few points:

1.We can make a plan, but it has to stay defensive. Church safety does not involve ushers who are packing heat. I don’ have space to get into this argument, other than to urge you to look into reasons why few (if any) armed civilians have been able to stop a mass shooting, even in a state where guns are plentiful. A man with a pistol and a MAGA hat tried to help at the Texas high school shooting. Police tackled him, and called him a “slap in the face.”

2. A defensive plan is reactive, but not reactionary. The worst thing that could happen with a stranger in church is a mass shooting. That’s probably true. But the second worse thing is a false alarm. A false alarm is also far more likely to occur—and it can damage Christianity almost as badly as a massacre.  Can you imagine a church calling the police on a homeless veteran, or on a couple of Latinos, or on an unfamiliar black man? That one move would ratify every prejudice our opponents say we have. And as for us liberals who work hard—but not hard enough—to differentiate ourselves from the Bible thumper, one mistake like that will throw us right back onto the pile of BS whose stink we have tried for years to remove.

3. This is all to say that we can have a defensive plan, sure–but it can’t displace our cause. As I sat in the sanctuary with the man with the duffle-bag, our minister preached against worry. He was talking about the lilies and their toiling and spinning; it had nothing to do with who had come to church that day. But as these things do, the scripture settled on me until it got under my skin. These days, much of the country’s most appalling behavior comes from fear. We fear the Muslim; we fear the “illegal;” we fear the black man as he reaches for his cellphone. We fear that our enemies take advantage of us; we fear that they plot a war on “American values” (whatever those are). We tremble ourselves toward committing atrocity. And once we become party to that cruelty—to that sin—I believe we’ll have suffered a fate worse than death. It’s a fate that damages our entire line. It’s a fate that damages our souls.

Really. That’s what I thought about while I watched Mr. Duffle-Bag wave at the kids during the children sermon.  There are fates worse than death. Am I going to be foolish about my safety? No. Of course not. But I’m also not going to be predatory about yours. If the Trump era has taught me anything it’s that there exists a group of people who would love for the US to become its own shooting match. In fact there exists other people who would love to see it all break out in a church.

So be still—be still. That’s what faith is. Do what you’re told and love your neighbor. A nation panicked is a national mob. But discipline is what makes it an army, or a team–or a resistance. Be still. And as we stay calm, we can show that every person is made for things greater than fear.

*While still up for debate, the average definition of a mass shooting involves four or more victims, other than the shooter.

**And it’s easy to say, “Wait! The disenfranchised aren’t the people doing the shooting.” And any statistic would show that you’re right. But welcome, if genuine, also must involve the white guy in the army fatigues. And that’s the crux of my problem.

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