The recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas got our attention because of its grisly violence and its location – a church in the midst of Sunday worship. It was a church like many of ours on the Eastern Shore. A video of the church’s service the week before the shooting made the rounds on the Internet and it shows a praise band, not entirely in sync and singing a bit off-key, but nonetheless joyfully. Children fidget in the pews. The passing of the peace goes on a little too long, but there is genuine affection among the congregants as they wander the room and hug.
Police say the same camera that records the services was running last Sunday, too, when the gunman came to First Baptist Church. I don’t need to see its horrors. They’ve been repeated too many times in too many places – in country music concerts, nightclubs, elementary schools, movie theaters, and other churches.
Following the shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we had a meeting of our Eastern Shore clergy to discuss church security with two law enforcement officers. We discussed practical ways to improve security during our worship services. Rev. Rebekah Simon-Peter offers some very useful pointers in a recent article that appeared on Ministry Matters, and I commend it to you for review.
There are things we can do to be wise and we should. But we should never be under the illusion that we will eliminate our vulnerability. It’s part of what being a follower of Jesus means, coming together with the armor of God, which is very different than the armor of the world. In fact, United Methodist churches are officially “weapons-free zones” by action of the General Conference.
What churches do, in their vulnerability which is their strength, is to bring light to situations where death and darkness seem to reign. Rev. Stephen A. Curry is the pastor at La Vernia UMC in the same county with First Baptist Church. In a recent New York Times editorial, he talked about the things churches have done since Sunday:
“Immediately after the shooting the churches started receiving and making offers of help. They rushed meals to those grieving and to the emergency workers. They were called on to help fund funerals and host a blood drive. Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, nondenominational — it didn’t matter.”
The larger conversations about reducing gun violence need to happen, too, but we ought not to overlook the strength Christians can show to others in times like these. Advocacy for new laws and casseroles to grieving families are what “thoughts and prayers” look like.
Ultimately, Curry says, we are at our best, not when we become armed fortresses, but when we are church:
“A church in Wilson County [where La Vernia and Sutherland Springs are located] is a community center where good people strive to do good for fellow human beings. A church in Wilson County is a home for extended family to share their lives. A church in Wilson County is a place where we come to mourn losses, grieve the death of a friend or relative, celebrate the joys of life and love. A church in Wilson County is a place where we connect with the God who loves us, watches over us, and, in the end, welcomes us home.”