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The Scary Event Right in the Middle of a Church Service

June 6, 2014

Prairie Grove Cemetery Chapel 7-27-01I 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?”

The song leader 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 the front end of the rectangle and our tiny “youth section” seated at the other end, in the back.  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, and we finished with a flourish.  He smiled widely and nodded, gesturing us to be seated.

“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.  She was bent over and leaning forward.

“Oh, please help me,” she called out.  “My husband kicked 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 looked toward the front.  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.

The woman slowly lowered herself into the pew.

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 the school day filled with energetic students and a good strong Q & A time today, I remember this incident from my childhood.   I recall how the lonely woman was simply calling for help – and received none.

I am reminded of the sophomore student who quietly came over and asked to see me earlier this week.  He waited until everyone left the room and then told me that he was greatly bothered about whether he was going to Heaven, and could we talk after school?

I had a full agenda that afternoon.  I had to catch up on all of the wok I missed due to my illness.  I had some meetings.  And most of all, I wanted to go home and get back into bed.

But this young man was hurting.  You could see his anxiety.

I stayed and met with him and we had a good, long talk.  We are going to continue to meet.

We Christian teachers strive for an orderly schedule.  We want the grades loaded, the rubric ready, the lesson plan followed to the minute.  We don’t like interruptions.

But what about those who stumble in and look for help?  What if we don’t allow them to break our routine?  How will we all act?

Do I love my schedule more than my students? 

If I do not respond to their plea and see to their needs, then I don’t see the reason why I should continue to be a Bible teacher.  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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  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.

  2. I’ve enjoyed both articles you have posted. My husband grew up in Lewes, DE and my grandparents lived in Dewey Beach, DE. We attended First Baptist Church of Lewes, DE It is not often that we meet people from DE or the Delmarva Peninsula!

  3. Sandy Hedrick permalink

    The silver lining to this heart wrenching experience is that it made an impression on a 14 year old boy, who took it into his adult life and determined to not love his schedule more than his students. May it make the same impression on me.

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