Yesterday, I sat in a pew at worship, in that strange position that I occupy these days as a mostly non-preaching preacher. My wife had scrapped her planned stewardship kick-off sermon to reflect the events of the week, naming how hard it can be to welcome the stranger and be a neighbor to all while reminding us it is what God calls us to do.
I sat next to one of my closest friends, aware of the feeling of sadness across the congregation. As the sermon came close to its finish, the outside door to the sanctuary opened noisily, and heads turned on a swivel, mine included. We saw a young white man wearing a backpack and oversized headphones. He did not look like one of “us.”
Later in the day, I assisted my wife at a vigil service. While she laid stones around a candle, I read aloud the names of a 97-year-old woman, a married couple in their 80s, men and women in their 60s and 70s, and two developmentally disabled brothers in their 50s. It struck me how much alike many congregations are, across differences of geography and faith tradition. Who shows up for worship? Longtime members, people who skew older, fewer and fewer families with children. At Tree of Life, members of three congregations, all in small groups, gathered for services in separate parts of the building. Reading about them, I was reminded of the last congregation I served as an interim, where in two years I baptized one teenager, married one older couple from the neighborhood, yet buried a dozen beloved elders.
The mass shooting in Squirrel Hill was not the only hate crime intended to harm people of faith in the past week, either. In Jeffersontown, Kentucky, a man bent on killing Black people rattled the locked doors of the First Baptist Church, then entered the Kroger instead, where he shot and killed Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67. He could not enter a Black church, so instead he sought out the nearest Black people. It’s being reported the shooter told a bystander, “Whites don’t kill whites.” Whether or not it’s an accurate report, the point was made: an armed bystander let the shooter flee, and the police arrested him alive and well.
Violent behavior is nothing new, whether the motivation is anti-Semitism or White Supremacy, personal grievance or domestic violence. There have always been authorities who look the other way, yet we live in a time when these authorities encourage openly a reaction that will only exacerbate and increase violence. We read that trauma techniques developed in war zones were employed at a suburban synagogue. We hear the President of the United States suggest that armed guards might have made a difference, although armed people have been present at recent mass shootings and made no difference whatsoever.
Maybe that’s the hardest part, the source of my deep lament. Nothing that has been said or done thus far has made any difference whatsoever.
How might we disrupt the status quo, pastors and faith leaders? How brave do we need to be to tell the people we serve that we are more alike than different from the people we have been encouraged to “other”? Sometimes we are afraid to upset our congregants – not to mention our family and friends – by preaching on or speaking about topics they consider to be political. Guns may be the most polarizing issue of all in the United States. Do we dare speak to the destructive power of the gun lobby and the over-availability of deadly weapons? Do we have the nerve to lead discussions about race and White Supremacy?
How brave are we?
This Sunday morning, after the back door crashed open, my wife spoke the final words of her sermon with one eye on the young man with the backpack. An usher had engaged him and continued talking to him, quietly. As the congregation rose to sing a hymn, she strode toward the back of the sanctuary.
When she passed my pew, I thought, “If this had been a shooting, she would be running toward it, not away.”
May we all be so brave.
Martha Spong is a clergy coach and executive director of RevGalBlogPals. She is co-author of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) with Rachel Hackenberg (Church Publishing, 2018). She blogs at marthaspong.com.
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