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It Happened Right in the Middle of a Church Service

June 6, 2014

I was sitting in the back section of the little country church in rural Delaware on a Sunday morning in mid-April.

“And don’t forget, the Spring Pot Luck dinner will be held in the Fellowship Hall in two weeks,” said the pastor.  “Please make sure you sign up, and follow the list on whether you’ll bring burgers, chicken, soup, or salad.  But everyone,” he said with a wink, “is responsible to bring a dessert, okay? All right, Henry, how about another song?”

imageThe songleader nodded and walked to the podium. I was fourteen at the time, seated with my brothers and sisters on wooden pews in a rectangular-shaped sanctuary common to many an older church of the day, with the pastor onstage at one end of the rectangle and our tiny “youth section” seated at the other.  In between there were farmers, mechanics, single moms, and factory workers – a slice of rural life on the Delmarva peninsula.  The congregation was small but comfortable; the seventy or so folks met on a regular basis and the group was quite active in church events:  Christmas program, prayer meetings, Fourth of July picnic, dinner on the grounds, singalongs, and even a capable bus ministry for little kids.  This was a simple church, with no air conditioning or paved parking lot.  The baptistry was made of unpainted concrete block.  The P.A. system was purchased from a bankrupt saloon.  We sang hymns like “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”, “I Want That Mountain”, and “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, led by Mr. Pannock, an energetic and raspy pig farmer who exuded a genuine joy in leading the musical part of the program.  The pastor was well-loved and amiable.

It was a nice church.  It wasn’t much, but like I said, we were comfortable.

On this Sunday in springtime, the pews were almost filled to capacity.  The windows were opened to let in a slight breeze and counteract the humidity that was creeping up during the morning hours.

“All right, then, the third verse!” cried Mr. Pannock.

People were following the enthusiastic songleader, singing “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown” robustly as the pastor stood on the stage nearby, tapping his foot to the music.  Mr. Pannock came to the end of the hymn, gesturing us to be seated and smiling widely.

“Great singing, great singing,” he said.

“Please help me!”

An unfamiliar voice shouted out in the middle of the congregation.  Mr. Pannock froze. The pastor froze.  The whole congregation sat stock still.

Two rows in front of me a thin dark-haired woman rose up and stood, clutching the pew in front of her.  She was new to the congregation, and by the looks of the people seated on either side of her, she was unfamiliar to anyone in the building.   I could not see her face, but her tense, unstable posture told it all.

“Oh, please help me,” she called out.  “My husband is kicking me out of the house.  He has been with a mistress and last night he told me to leave.  I don’t know what to do.  We’ve been married for over ten years and he’s always been the breadwinner, and I’ve been disabled and unable to work.  He’s moving the woman in with him and I don’t know what to do.”

I could see her shoulders shake.  “Please help me.”  She slowly seated herself.  The room was quiet.

Mr. Pannock had a puzzled expression.  The pastor’s face was pale.  Mr. Pannock turned to the pastor and nodded.  The pastor nodded back and walked to the podium as the songleader walked down the aisle and took his seat.

And Pastor started his sermon … as if nothing had happened.

Nothing was said. Nothing was done.

I kept watching the back of the woman’s head through the sermon.  It was bent over in grief and anguish.  I looked at the people on either side of her. Their heads were rigid and face-forward.

I repeat, nothing was done.

On the way home from church, I asked my mother about the situation.  “What do you think about what happened with the lady?”

I could see my mom clutching the steering wheel, hard.  Her mouth was pursed.

“What they did was wrong,” she said.  “That was wrong.”

“What did they do wrong?”  I was puzzled. “They didn’t do anything.”

“That’s the point, Brad,” she said, turning down Main Street.  “They didn’t do anything.  They could have stopped and prayed for her.  Someone could have taken her by the hand and led her to a private place and counseled her.  They could have passed the hat and given her some money to help her, for goodness sake.  Something.  Anything.

I was not a Christian at the time, but I understood what my mom was saying.  There was a problem with our church:  as I said, we were comfortable. We liked our singing.  We liked our dinners.  We liked our holidays.  We weren’t in a rut, no, not at all.  We were in a cycle, and enjoyable roller coaster of routine that couldn’t grasp an interloper breaking the pattern.

The leadership and congregation weren’t calloused.  They just didn’t know how to serve others outside their own group.  We’d never been taught the kind outreach of Jesus.  We’d never seen the need. And when it came up and slapped us in the face, we didn’t know what to do.

Was the woman a Christian or a non-Christian?  I don’t know.  What difference does it make?  She needed help.  We should have helped.

As I prepare for speaking at our very first Sunday evening coffee house Bible study, I recall this incident.   I’ve been receiving emails from around the community filled with excitement over our brand-new Scripture study and Q & A time.  I’ve had phone calls and Facebook notices from friends and acquaintances who promise to be there.

These are people I know.

What about the unfamiliar ones?

What about those who stumble in and look for help?  What if we don’t know them?  How will we all act?  If we do not leap to their help and see to their needs, then I don’t see the reason why we Christians should continue meeting at the coffee house.  Our daily ministry and outward example of Christ is to show a caring love for others.  I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s intense wording about compassion:

“I could have a faith that moves mountains, and I could speak with a Heavenly language, yet if I don’t have a sacrificial love, it does me no good.”

Dear Lord above, let us all have a compassionate love for one another – whether we know them or not – as we serve You.  We pray this in the name of Jesus. So let it be.

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2 Comments
  1. zedwarlow permalink

    What a heart-breaking story about something that happens far too often in the church. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Yes, I agree with you. I wonder if we don’t get caught up with our own little spiritual universe that we are unable and unwilling to open up and allow God to introduce us to others’ needs.

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