An acquaintance of mine, a man who is a deacon in a local church, stopped by, and asked if he could talk to me.
We sat down in the small conference room at the community center we run.
“What do y’all do about sex offenders in church?” he asked.
A man named Andy had been coming to their church – a nice, successful, red brick, steeple church – for the last few months. He had attended their adult Sunday School, and everyone liked him. Andy was an older man, in his late fifties, with a short beard and horn rimmed glasses. He was well read, knew his Bible and listened with rapt attention in the service. He was thinking about joining the church, so he scheduled a meeting with the pastor.
“That was when it went south. He told the preacher he was a sex offender, and he wanted to join the church,” the deacon said.
The pastor told him he would have to do some research. He had then called the denomination’s regional office, who said that it was a no-go because of their “safe-child” policy. The pastor then called a meeting of the deacons to let them know what was going on, and my friend said he would talk to me, since I probably had had this come up before.
“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.
“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.”
He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on.
I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others.
I also said that all relationships have boundaries, and that it was a great sign that Andy wanted the pastor to know that he needed boundaries. I also told him that a lot of the research shows that recidivism rates for sex offenders are pretty low anyway, and even lower when the perpetrator has a support network, like, you know, a church family.
And then, there is the fact that the Church was allegedly founded by a guy who tended to stick up for people who others had written off, and welcomed those others said were unwelcome because they were unclean. So there is some precedent.
He thanked me, and as he was walking toward the door, stopped, turned back and said, “So he could come to church with you guys, right? It wouldn’t be a problem?”
I assure him it wouldn’t. He said he would talk to the pastor and let me know if there were more questions.
# # #
It’s about 3 weeks later. I had never heard anything else, and had honestly forgotten the conversation.
We are getting ready for our weekly service, and I notice a man standing in the corner, looking nervous. He is well dressed, and brought a Bible with him, a rarity in our congregation. I have never seen him before.
‘Hi, I’m Hugh,” I say, shaking his hand.
“I’m Andy,’ he said, like I should know who he is.
I didn’t. I looked blankly.
“Didn’t they let you know I was coming? They told me I could come here, when they told me I couldn’t go to their church anymore.”
I got it.
“Oh, over at [name of big steeple church]?” I ask.
“Yes.” A nervous pause. “Is it OK I am here?”
I assured him it was.
“Come on in, Andy. I’m glad you are here. Let me introduce you to some people.”
# # #
At our weekly service, we share communion every week. And I always end the words of institution with the same words:
“Churches have argued over the years about who gets to take communion – just who is welcome at the table.
Some say it is only for members of a particular church. Others say only the baptized can come. But here in our community, we are clear that this ritual reminds us of a meal Jesus once shared. And in our examination of the scriptures, we don’t see anywhere where someone wanted to eat with Jesus and was turned away.
So we won’t turn you away either. We don’t care what you’ve done. Or where you’ve been. Or even what you believe right now. All that matters is that you want to be here. And if you do, then you are welcome, and we invite you to come forward.”
# # #
The line was long that week. I had the bread, and one of our regulars had the cup of grape juice we use instead of wine, because lots of us are in recovery.
I would hand them the bread –
“The bread of life, broken for you.”
They take the bread, dip it in the juice –
“The cup of love, poured out for you.”
…and return to their seat while our bearded bluesman who wants to e called Bullfrog belts out some licks on the guitar.
Andy is at the rear of the line, looking down at his hands as he shuffles forward in the line. He stands in front of me, and looks me in the eye.
I hold out a piece of bread.
“The bread of life, Andy. And it’s for you.”
Tears in his eyes, Andy takes it.
“I can be here? You’re sure?”
I hug him, and say, “If you can’t be here, then neither can I. I’m glad you came.”
After dipping his bread in the juice, he puts it in his mouth, juice running down his chin, staining his white shirt. He then turns and walks down the aisle to his seat.
# # #
Andy is one of more than a dozen men on the sex offender registry that regularly worship with us. I could tell you things about his story that might challenge your perceptions about sex offenders, but that’s not the point.
We know Andy, and Andy knows us. We know each other’s stories, and there is accountability in that. And Andy prays for me, which is good, because I need it, and Andy is a good prayer, a skill he learned in those long years in prison.
The easiest thing in the world to do is to confuse your comfort with your safety, and it is easy to be scared of what we do not know. And the work of relationship and accountability is much harder than telling a man like Andy he has to go worship elsewhere. After all, no one in your church is going to fault you for trying to “keep them safe”.
The problem is, the gospels tell us nothing about our safety, but do say that people like Andy – the underdogs, the pariahs, the unclean and the forgotten – are actually Jesus in disguise, and that when we reject them, we reject Jesus himself.
So by all means, pray to God, and sing your organ music and pass the plate and preach about Jesus. But if you do that, you have to be prepared for what to do when he shows up, looking like a sex offender.
(img source: Ted Van Pelt/CC)