Who's in the pew next to you?
Written by E.S. Gaffney
December 2008 - January 2009
The pastor of a small UCC church in the northern plains returned from a 10-day vacation to find the church in an uproar. While away, a video had surfaced on YouTube showing one of the newer families in the church making racial and anti-Semitic remarks on a late night TV talk show. To say the least, their remarks were vitriolic and full of hate.
The deacons peppered their pastor with questions. "Did you know about this? How could you let these people into our church? Why didn't you warn us?" They demanded answers.
Three years earlier - shortly after the pastor arrived at her new church - the church secretary answered the office phone. A timid voice said they were looking for a church but weren't sure if they'd be welcome.
"Of course." The secretary echoed the UCC's new slogan. "No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."
The next Sunday, a young couple visited the church with two grade school children and a preschooler. The father could easily have passed for one of those burly bouncers in the ad - the ones who decide who can enter the church and who cannot. The pastor and the congregation welcomed them. A few months later, they joined the congregation. Everyone was sure this was the beginning of a new era of church growth.
The pastor had to answer the demanding deacons. Yes, she had known about it, but not when the couple first joined the church. She found out in a counseling session about a year later. She didn't tell anyone because the information was given in confidence. She had been working with both parents to lead them to understand the meaning of Jesus' openness and inclusivity.
The next evening, the church council was unmoved. One member, showing almost as much hatred as the offenders, angrily declared, "We cannot tolerate hatred."
Two Sunday later, the president of the church council told the pastor they wanted to meet with her in the basement after the service. Barely a dozen people attended her sermon based on Luke 7:36-8:3 - the story of the woman who interrupted a posh dinner party to wash Jesus' feet with her tears and with precious ointment, and to dry them with her hair. The woman begged forgiveness for her sins, which was granted. The pastor concluded her sermon. "The church is not in the morality business, the church is in the forgiveness business."
She descended the stairs to the basement where the council was waiting. Most of them had not worshiped upstairs that morning. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, she offered her resignation.
Welcoming is not as easy as a slogan, but we are called to do it. Jesus told us directly to do it. "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25:36). And he taught us by example when he talked with the outcasts of his day - Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors. He even chose a tax collector to be one of his disciples.
But there are fears and even dangers (real or imagined) that accompany welcoming. We see church as a safe place, a place where we can relax from the constant worry of modern society.
Most churches would be reluctant to accept sex offenders. The dangers are obvious. State laws increasingly force convicted sex offenders out of homes, often into rural areas where schools and parks are widely separated. But not all offenders are known as such. Sometimes their offenses become known only after, sometimes long after, they are in a congregation.
It has been reported that the pastor of Wichita's BTK killer, who was the president of his church council, found himself drawn to Mark 28:20 - "I am with you always, to the end of the age" - as he prepared his sermon for the Sunday following Dennis Rader's capture. "If Dennis has done what they've alleged he did, then he must pay the price," the Rev. Michael Clark said. "It still does not have any effect on how I minister to him. I still will love him."
If we are not willing to engage the outcasts or renegades from society, how can we expect that their beliefs or behaviors will ever change? Distasteful or dangerous as it may be, we are directed to go and tell the gospel to all. If we do not, who will?
The northern plains pastor had followed the admonitions of Mark 16:15, "Go into the world. Go everywhere and announce the Message of God's good news to one and all." And she obeyed Christ's commission in Matthew 28:20 to "instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you."
She had been working almost two years to bring the father of this family to see the inclusive and forgiving message of the Christ. By the time the video appeared on YouTube, he had abandoned all connections with the Christian Church Aryan. Sadly, having been rejected by his UCC church, he returned to the Aryan church. "Because they accept me," he said.
How can we open the eyes of those blinded by racial hatred, how can we help heal those whose souls are sick with unrestrained sexual desires or murderous fantasies, if we do not deal with them? How, if we do not ask them to confront Jesus, to bring their actions to him, to lay down those acts, and to beg forgiveness?
E.S. Gaffney is a retired geophysical researcher living in Honolulu, Hawaii. He and his wife are 33-year members of the UCC. Currently, they are members of St. John's UCC in Council Bluffs, Iowa.