He’d been making the rounds.
The man in the trench coat, Bible in hand, burst through the side door of the sanctuary right after communion. “The Lord sent me here today,” he proclaimed, in the midst of a rant about repentance and the end of days. He wasn’t entirely unexpected, having made similar appearances at other area churches. Still, it’s an unsettling thing to have worship disrupted–loudly–by a stranger.
Especially a stranger in a trench coat. There’s no way of knowing what may be concealed under a trench coat. And in the current climate, there’s an ominous implication of violence under every ill-fitting garment. Especially when that ill-fitting garment is on the frame of a person so clearly volatile; and one who so clearly feels entitled to claim a voice and platform in a space where he has not been invited. What else might such a person be capable of? In America, it’s not exactly unheard of for religious fanatics to be armed and dangerous. So while he was not entirely unexpected, he was certainly an unsettling presence.
The staff members closest on that side of the sanctuary immediately rose and, seemingly on instinct, put themselves between the man and the congregation.
As the clergy closed the gap on one side, ushers and deacons approached on the other. The whole thing seemed to unfold in slow motion, from the first collective intake of breath as the congregation realized what was happening to the palpable shift of energy that took place in the room. You could feel parents scooting closer to children, and people moving to the edge of their pews (not in the anticipatory way a preacher hopes folks will lean in when hearing the word, but in the way of preparing to make a quick exit if necessary).
The quick response on the part of staff and nearby church leaders indicated that such a scenario had been planned for. At least–inasmuch as you can ‘plan’ for such a moment.
Having been on the other side of the pulpit until recently, I know that this very scenario is one that pastors, elders, property chairs and trustees have been ‘planning for,’ and agonizing over, for years. It cannot be denied that we live in a time when tensions are high; when religious ideologies (and those who hold them) rail against the mainstream culture; and a time in which we no longer bat an eye when there is a mass shooting on the news. Isn’t it only a matter of time, really, before our churches are faced with the realities of violent intrusion? Or at least, the prospect of such a thing?
So in our beloved communities, we ask ourselves: where are our weak spots? What are some things that might make us a target? Do we have an intruder policy?
Which leads to many uncomfortable convos about… well, who is an intruder? How do you spot and minimize a threat before it becomes a threat? How do you ‘prepare’ and keep your people safe, without being alarmist? Without resorting to armed guards at the doors, which sort of renders the whole ‘sanctuary’ thing null and void?
These are questions to which there are no easy answers, but churches continue to have faithful conversations about what it means to be welcoming while also being safe; what it means to be people of the third way of Jesus, while also recognizing the realities of the world in which we live.
Those realities came calling today, in the place where I worship. I wondered if there was a reason it was us, today. For instance, our associate minister, who is a woman, was preaching today, so I was ready for the guy to start railing about 1 Corinthians 14. Or maybe he’d heard that our denomination is (however mildly) accepting of LGBT people– were we about to hear about abominations before the Lord? Then again, Tuesday is election day… and one of the candidates in our highly-contested Gubernatorial race was sitting in the third row. It is no secret he and his family are active members of this church. Was it a politically-motivated demonstration?
But really, none of these things matter. It could have happened anywhere, and it does. There is not always a ‘why,’ when the world comes calling in a place that otherwise feels like sanctuary. As much as we’d love to wrap ourselves in cocoons of good theology, compassion and protocol, life is messy. And even worship comes with echoes of the world’s dysfunction, the hint of violence that lies under every ill-fitting cloak; and occasional reminders of the end of the world as we know it.
Today, before the intrusion, we celebrated All Saint’s Day. Names spoken, candles lit, the space between us and those gone before perhaps a bit more thin than usual. As the church leaders surrounded the stranger in the side aisle, they seemed to move as a single body. Without force, they gently laid hands on his arms and began to move towards the exit. As they moved, he was moved with them–carried on an invisible current away from the congregation and right out the rear door.
From my spot on the other side of the sanctuary, I saw the illusion of this motion for what it was: a cloud of witnesses. It was an intercessory prayer come to life; a body for our One Body, and a living testament to the physical force of love that surrounds us in all things.
It’s a thing more holy than our best policies and procedures could ever materialize, and today–for all the Saints– maybe the only ‘why’ that we need.