Pastoral Letter after racist disruption of service

Dear Members and Friends of the Fellowship,

 

If you were present at the service this morning or have talked with people who were, you know we had a disruption in our service. Some of us are angry that our space was invaded and our service disrespected. Some of us are feeling unsafe in our own caring and nurturing home. Some of us are confused about what this means and what we can and should do about it to secure our safety while also living out our commitment to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. We were already feeling raw, exposed, and violated from this experience when we stepped back into the news coverage and found out about the tragic shooting during worship this morning at a Baptist church in a tiny Texas town.

 

This event and all the events in our society that we feel connected to because of this experience raise fears and concerns in us and may make us feel unsafe. Always, but especially at this time, please know that I welcome your calls, requests for appointments, invitations to meet with you. I am here for you with pastoral counseling and solidarity. It is a challenge to all of us to rise to the occasion and, in the unavoidable uncertainties of our time, to do our utmost to live out our values and support each other in love. I am here to meet with you and offer my support and care.

 

Please remember that, distressing though these events have been for each of us no matter our identity and for all of us together, Fellowship members and friends of color face an additional level of stress and need for caution and care that white members do not because of the anger today’s aggressive guest focused on the presence of the Black Lives Matter signs in our sanctuary and in my office window. Part of the aggression we observed was overtly racist aggression. If you are a white member or friend, please be aware of the additional level of insecurity and feeling under attack that this situation presents to members and friends of color. If you are a person of color, I welcome any responses you wish to share and invite you to tell me what you need from your congregation now in light of what happened here today. And I commit to not backing down in response to the threats against the Black Lives Matter message that calls us to growing racial equity.

 

WHAT HAPPENED HERE:

A person who lives in the neighborhood of the Fellowship was present in the Fellowship Hall during our service, exhibiting the signs of excessive alcohol consumption. As the sermon was nearing its end but not yet finished, he interrupted to make an aggressive statement that was based in theological difference. Some of our members bravely attempted to talk him down and gently but firmly shepherded him out.

 

We took a few deep breaths together, finished the sermon, and began our Congregational Reflection. The person who had disrupted the service returned to his seat and then entered into the reflection, continuing to belligerently present his belief about Jesus and, with increasing agitation, spoke angrily about the Black Lives Matter sign, telling us how wrong he found it and what we should replace it with. He rather incoherently insisted that “it” (presumably racism and injustice) was “our heritage.” Again, some of our members shepherded him out and called the police.

 

Our members who dealt most directly with this disruptive, aggressive guest were careful to observe and surreptitiously check to find that he was not armed. And while he did not become physically combative, his verbal behavior did escalate. He did not threaten violence against people, but he did make what sounded like a threat against our property and our ministry. He also expressed displeasure with me.

 

The Waynesboro police responded to the call, talked with our members who responded and with our other leaders. The officer told us our options, spent time with us, and then left. After the police left, our belligerent guest returned with his dog on a leash. Again his behavior was erratic and escalating. Again there was no direct physical threat other than the implied threat of returning with his dog when we did not know the dog’s temperament or training. But he did make a threat against our property. The police were called back, but our now unwelcome guest was gone when the officer arrived.

 

NEXT STEPS:

The Board and I take this situation very seriously and no later than at this Wednesday’s Board Meeting will take up the issue both of our response to this person’s behavior and the risks this situation has brought into greater awareness. We have changed our meeting agenda to take on this issue directly. We have been very lucky up to this point but must not count on luck alone for the future.

 

The congregation already has a Disruptive Persons Policy. The Board will reexamine what response it prescribes and determine if additional responses are needed. We will carefully consider the need, efficacy, and ramifications of banning a neighbor from our property, recognizing that a piece of paper is only a tool that affects future responses to problems that arise rather than a preventive measure. There are many aspects of this issue and we welcome your feedback and ideas with me.

 

I have informed the Prism Learning Community, who rent our facilities through daytime hours on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, of what transpired and have urged them to be vigilant and, when they are in our buildings, to keep the doors locked. We will also inform other Fellowship and outside users of our facilities of today’s events and of emerging steps to increase their safety in our space.

 

As there are developments to report, you will promptly hear from me.

 

Peace, Blessings, Love,
Rev. Paul

Sunday, November 5, 2017