Holy, wholly, holey? Confronting crime in sanctified spaces

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My congregation was robbed at gunpoint during a Christmas Eve candlelight service.

This was in the early 1990s in Fayetteville at the first congregation I served. A man entered our church building a few minutes late for the service. And as the ushers tried to quietly give the man a bulletin and instructions as to where to sit in a already over-filled sanctuary, he fumbled out a gun, used some very un-Christmas-like language, and absconded with the two ushers’ wallets.

At the quietest part of the service, as the lessons were being read about the birth of the Christ-child, the one usher sneaked up to the front of the sanctuary to get the office key from me to reach the church phone (yes, this was before cellphones!) and told me what had happened.

As I looked out on the 140 people crammed into the 120-seat sanctuary, I tried to determine what was the right thing to do: tell everyone what just happened and possibly cause a panic resulting in people rushing outside where the gunman might still be waiting, or hold the unease to myself as the police were on their way.

I decided on the latter, and all was calm and bright for the rest of the service.

Following the service, the police were still present talking to the two ushers, and pretty quickly word spread as to what had just happened. I was taken aback by the number of people who then revealed that had they known what was going on, they had either on their person or in their vehicles guns galore (not surprising giving the military nature of the town, but also, as I gathered, not legal either).

And the most shocking thing about that Christmas Eve is that we were not the only church with such an incident. At a local Baptist church, a similar incident had occurred with another perpetrator who ended his robbery activity with a whole group of congregants chasing him down the street!

Both incidents were written off by many as just being the anomaly of being in a tough town like Fayetteville. Because after all, who would rob a church...with a service going on...on Christmas Eve? It was an unthinkable occurrence!

I thought about that event from some 20 years ago when I first heard the news about the shooting at the church service this past Sunday in Texas with more than 20 people dying. It once again sparked debates about all the mass shootings in recent years and what should be done.

On the one hand, if there were no guns, there would, in fact, be no shootings. On the other, if everyone had a gun, maybe the gunman would have been taken out earlier (or more likely even more death would have occurred due to crossfire of inexperienced marksmen, as the debate goes).

Guns can be argued back and forth to no avail, as has been pointed out in one of the recent articles I read this past week: “Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

Then there was a whole series of conversations about mental health and how to diagnose those with lethal tendencies, how to keep guns out of their hands, and the legal and financial wranglings as far as what can be done.

The debate I haven’t heard about is the one that is more troubling concerning this particular incident as well as the shooting during a Bible study in Charleston two years ago.

It’s bad enough to have a mass shooting, but what does it mean to have it happen in a church sanctuary? Even on that Christmas Eve 20 years ago, our robber didn’t dare enter the sanctuary and the thought of disrespecting God’s holy space on God’s holy night was what made that incident especially disturbing.

Some churches are trying to not only reclaim the church having a sanctuary, but to be a sanctuary, a place of safety from the burdens of the world and a place of peace to be at rest in God’s Word. However, I wonder if the meaning of that word has been lost.

“Sanctus,” from which we get the word, means holy — set apart for God’s purposes. No matter how casual and modern our services may feel; we are still in God’s house for the holy purpose of being made whole by God’s grace. Somehow our society has created people who feel that filling the holy with bullet holes is an actual option.

And as in last week’s attack, it was not only glass and wood shattered by evil, but God’s very children gathered in worship and praise!

Has society become so secularized that the respect for God and any space for holiness has been lost? Behind such a flippant disrespect of faith or belief in a higher power is also a sinful selfishness that allowed this gunman to discount the value of his fellow human beings in the very place where the value of all God’s children is proclaimed on a weekly basis.

This broken individual entered the very place where he might be made whole. He ironically came to the place where a proclamation of God’s love and mercy and a desire to forgive and cleanse everyone who might enter is made weekly. He came and not only missed the chance for healing and peace, which is what everyone else in that sanctuary came for, but blasphemed the very purpose of a holy space for people who need a holy hope.

He chose to rend asunder where the very purpose is to make whole. And how is it possible to turn such tragedy around for those who might be just as misguided?

It is truly a God-sized problem needing many prayers and much grace!

The only evidence that I have that such a switch could be possible for those who do not recognize the meaning of “sanctuary” actually lies in the incident I started with. A couple of years ago, I got a letter from the man who brought a gun into my first church 20 years earlier on a bright Christmas Eve.

He had done his time, had a conversion experience while in prison, and was then sending out letters recognizing his sin and asking for forgiveness from the two men he had robbed and the church he had violated.

My guess is that he is as flabbergasted as the rest of us about the events of last weekend. I don’t know which side of those other debates he would fall on, but I’m pretty confident that he would agree — if we have respect for God, it is easier to have love for our neighbor.

And if we love our God and neighbor, we would be less likely to have such tragedy or the need for any of those other debates.

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 26 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.