One Sunday during my first year of parish ministry, I stood in the church narthex waiting to begin the service, when Barney, the neighbor of a twenty-year church member, ran red-faced from the street screaming, “Help me, help me!”
Barney, who’d been coming to church for the summer, was sweating and trembling in his worn polyester suit, and for a few moments I thought his suffering was physical until Shirley (the twenty-year member) charged in after him, also yelling.
They shouted simultaneously: She tried to hit him with her car. He was stalking her.
Shirley towered over me, blonde and vicious, while Barney cowered behind my back screaming his own accusations. I tried to remain calm.
Growing up, no one in my agnostic family ever yelled. When relationships were unbearable, the miserable packed and left without saying goodbye.
When, as a new parent and a new Christian, I’d been so worn down by my defiant toddler that I threw my own tantrum, I was mortified, convinced I was headed straight to hell—or jail.
Since then, I’d attended parenting classes and therapy, learning broader options for conflict resolution than flight or fight, but in the skirmish between Barney and Shirley, I froze, a rabbit between hounds.
That was nearly ten years ago, and I don’t remember what I said, if I said anything, before Barney ducked around me toward the parking lot and sped off in his car, and Shirley huffed to the kitchen where she brewed coffee and arranged a tray of cookies before slipping into worship midway through the first hymn.
After service that Sunday I sat in a child-sized chair in the nursery and asked Shirley how I could help. The church had sheltered and supported Shirley, then in her mid-fifties, through two decades of disability, homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.
She said Barney had molested men in their public housing complex and had mounted hidden cameras in her apartment. She claimed he broke in, took small knick-knacks, and killed her houseplants—revenge for her refusal to sleep with him.
The next Sunday Barney came to worship and sat in his usual spot on the middle aisle two rows from the back. He fidgeted with a jumbo size box of Kleenex he’d brought from home labeled with his name in fat black marker. He blew his nose through the call to worship, opening prayer, and padded out during the last verse of the first hymn.
Afterward, Shirley asked me to fill out paperwork for a temporary restraining order. We sat together and I ticked off boxes and recorded detailed complaints against Barney. I couldn’t know if Shirley was accurate, but I didn’t doubt she was telling her truth: He was dangerous, irredeemable, and must be banished.
Barney mailed me a copy of the letter he submitted to the court along with his own restraining order against Shirley, saying this church was his family and that he needed to worship with us.
I believed him, too.
What is church, if not a place for the lonely and hurting to move outside our own pain and experience acceptance and grace?
Yet the church cannot relieve a lifetime of suffering. It cannot restrain us from acting and speaking carelessly, nor can it order away the consequences of our choices. No pastor or community, no matter how skilled or loving, can do the work that only God can accomplish in us.
Jesus asks: Do you want to be healed? He doesn’t ask who should serve as the scapegoat for our sins, who we’d like to toss from a cliff or out of church, so we can act sin-scrubbed, fresh and piglet pink.
Nor does Jesus ask the distance our demons should be kept at bay.
The judge issued a twenty-five foot restraining order.
While I believed our denomination’s tagline—“Open doors, open hearts, open minds”—I tried to imagine what that would mean in our little hundred-year-old building.
There might be twenty-five feet from the left side of the left pew to the right side of the right pew, but what about passing the peace, or walking up the middle aisle for communion, or the closing circle when we held hands and sang?
Would I need to clip a Stanley tape measure next to my wireless microphone?
I prayed and contemplated and twirled a WWJD? bracelet, but I couldn’t imagine how two-dozen worshippers could absorb the animosity and hatred Barney and Shirley would spew toward each other without damaging their own spirits.
I called the retired elder who served with me.
“I wish I’d gone to seminary,” I said feeling unqualified for the burden of such responsibility, “then I’d know what to do.”
“Cathy,” he answered, “they don’t teach this kind of thing in seminary.”
We both laughed a little at that. In his fifty years of ministry, parishioners filing mutual restraining orders was a first.
Could we live as the body of Christ when one member was intent on attacking another? Didn’t Jesus say something about removing the offending member if it causes us to sin? And what if that member was another person?
Reverend Dwight and I overruled the judge. We wrote Barney and said he could not worship with us. We wished him well and encouraged him to find a new church.
Shirley remained a troubled and active church member, free with both her anger and tears. Over time, I learned to listen without figuring out what I should do for her, and learned to simply be with her. In doing so I glimpsed a spirit who craved God, demanded love, and would not be silenced.
On earth as it is in heaven. How impossible that seems.
I don’t know what happened to Barney, but I kept his Kleenex box in the sanctuary.
Cathy Warner is the literary editor for Good Letters and a graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. Retired from parish ministry, she lives with her husband on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where she hosts a writers retreat and blogs about remodeling.