On the Fourth of July, I went over to University Presbyterian Church to put together hygiene kits for our shelter in Mexico. As I was busy rolling wash clothes, one of the drivers who transports donations to our shelter came in and asked me if I had heard about the burnings of two churches in Douglas, Arizona where we also have a state prison and a strong effort to assist asylum seekers. Because of our duties, we were not able to spend much time discussing this alarming news. First Presbyterian Church and St. Stephen’s Episcopal churches in Douglas burst into flames in May of this year as the result of the actions of a misguided arsonist. Both churches were severely damaged, and at First Presbyterian Church the floor collapsed, the baptismal font disappeared in flames, the large wooden cross was gone, and the stained glass windows were severely damaged. Fortunately, the churches were unoccupied when the fires occurred.
The arsonist was arrested, and had a significant record of past crimes of domestic violence as well as previous acts of arson. He was asked to leave a church in Bisbee when he espoused a hatred that women and gays are allowed to preach. The pastor at St. Stephen’s is openly gay and the pastor at First Presbyterian is a woman.
This is a tragedy for all concerned. It is a tragedy that precious spiritual homes were severely damaged. It is a greater tragedy that a human person would be filled with such misguided hate and vitriol.
When we are confronted with events that are tragic, despicable, and hugely disappointing, we are faced with the choice of several responses or reactions. We can perpetrate further violence, an eye for an eye. We can rant at whomever is in front of us or on social media going on and on about the terrible state of our world. We can retreat into bitterness. We can cast harsh judgment on the perpetrator.
Or we can remain faithful to our core beliefs and move forward in a spirit of love. The churches in Douglas made a conscious decision to persevere in the spirit of love. The Sunday after the fires, the Presbyterian church worshipped in a local park, and both churches are moving forward with reconstruction.
Although both of these churches have an extreme challenge to come together to survive, many churches are finding themselves in decline. During COVID we were not able to gather in person, and now we see declining numbers in many mainline churches who preach a message of love, inclusion and extravagant welcome. And so what do we do? Do we engage in much breast beating and wringing of hands, do we search for reasons to blame, do we just throw up our hands and give up?
Stephanie Spellers, and Episcopal priest, observes that “across dominant American culture, entire generations are rejecting faith. Some are angry and associate Christianity with words like “hypocrite” or “judgmental,” but an alarming number of younger people simply do not know or care about religious institutions at all.” (The Church Cracked Open pg. 12)
Quite frankly, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the doomsday reflections about the demise of the church, because I feel it is important to put our energies into what is in front of us. The real questions do not revolve around the decline of church membership, but the real questions ask: How can we be more loving? How can we be of wider service? How can we support one another in kindness? How can we reach out to our community in concrete ways that meet a need? If we work on these things, we become the church no matter what our numbers.
Perhaps part of the answer is in letting go and letting God, letting go of the image of the church of the 1950’s and letting a new vision emerge, letting go of worry, and seeking God’s hope and direction. In this way we will become the resurrected church. We will open our hearts and our minds to a new creation, a new way of doing things, a new way of being together in love.
Here are some things we might let go of to become the resurrected church:
We can let go of any need to be perfect, and in doing so we can accept that we all make mistakes, and we all have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Unlike our Presbyterian siblings, we have no need to do things decently and in order! We can be messy and creative as we become the resurrected church. We can have children and dogs in our sanctuary. We can sing a little bit off key. We can double over in laughter. We can weep. We can celebrate our imperfect selves.
We can let go of the notion that things will always be the same as they were. One of the speakers at our recent National Synod defined tradition as “listening to the instructions of dead people,” and went on to postulate that the walking dead among us are worshipping on auto pilot. We can worship differently. We can involve lots of different people in worship. We can consider every can of green beans we bring for the food bank to be a prayer. We can consider our visits to the Justa Center as part of our after church coffee hour. We can view our First Friday dinners as Holy Communion.
We can let go of the notion that church is a building. As I say these words, I must confess that I am totally in love with the architecture of this church….the beautifully simple mission style. But the church is the people who come into the building: the 12 step recovery groups, the people who quietly clean the church before we gather on Sunday, the hearts and hands that prepare our food and drink and prepare the table for communion. And the church is the people who return to the world with a kinder less self centered way of living. Some of the people of the church aren’t people at all, and they have four legs and fur. We are the church whenever we approach the world in love and kindness.
Letting go and letting God does not mean that we expect God to drive the car. It means that we make a faithful contribution, and then let go of the outcome. We still want Marilyn to make the coffee; Christopher to seek out modern ways to communicate through technology; Gregory to hook up the sound system; Audrey to pass out bulletins; Lissi to create our newsletter; Paula to surround us with wonderful music, Joyce to remind us that we have enough to share; and Tim to clean the bathrooms. But most of all, we must come to this place to be together, to love one another, to pray and sing together, and to offer genuine welcome to new neighbors who walk through our doors. As we gather and put our heads and hearts together, we will percolate a plan for the future, a plan for Black Mountain United Church of Christ. We will remind ourselves that we are a church where all are welcome and loved, where women and gay people are called to our pulpit, where children have an opinion, where we learn new things, where we laugh and weep together, where we disagree with respect, and where dogs are always welcome.
We live in a city that is named for a bird who rises up out of the ashes, wings spead, ready to fly. That is the image I choose to have of the church.
The poet and United Church of Christ minister, Laura Martin, pens these words:
All things rise again.
I know that this is somehow true,
And do not need to understand the physics
To believe it…
Seeds in the ground,
The last moon of summer,
The prayer you whispered when there
Was no one else in the room.
So pitch yourself toward what will not be finished
In the visible world.
Work for the seeds in the ground and the
Birds that cannot yet fly.
Work for the home of the ones
Not yet born,
And the ones whose bare feet have touched earth
For 100 years.
Work for what you thought you
And for what will not go unnoticed
By eyes other than your own.
There is one more thing about the churches that were burned in Douglas. As Christian people, we are asked to pray for the arsonist whose misguided acts resulted in the fires. His name is Eric. Please add him to your daily prayers. Amen.