This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on April 23, 2018
I was a third of the way through the children’s sermon at Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC Church. It was the last Sunday in Epiphany, and I was discussing our upcoming Veggie Fast—a New York Conference initiative to get UCC church people to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products one day a week during Lent. Participation would be completely voluntary. Even though Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC was a tiny rural church surrounded by, well, cornfields and dairy farms, I thought it would be beneficial for our children—and our adult congregants—to learn about and participate in this Lenten exercise.
Suddenly, Fred, a middle-aged choir member, became visibly upset. “I’m not taking part in anything you’re talking about!,” he screamed. “No church has a right to tell me what I can eat! I’ve had enough of you and your liberal denomination’s nonsense!” And with that, he and his wife put on their coats and stomped out of the church—with Fred ranting all the way up the center aisle and out the door. Honest to God, it was right in the middle of morning worship—there was nothing subtle about it. Everyone in the congregation was electrified. Our two children and their mother were so frightened by Fred’s crazy act that they never returned to the church.
I stammered my way through the remainder of that service as best I could. Afterwards, a church leader said to me, “Don’t worry about what happened today; that’s just Fred.”
That afternoon, I called our church’s co-pastor, Martha, to tell her about the fracas. She suggested we contact the county sheriff—which we did. We knew that many members of the congregation—including Fred—were culturally and politically conservative. Perhaps they saw the Veggie Fast as an intolerably liberal political program. Or maybe our dairy farmers saw it as a threat to their livelihood. But it was clear that something else was going on. Fred’s explosive outburst seemed to be a harbinger of an emotional or mental disturbance. Did Fred have a weapon in his home? We thought he did. Was he the kind of person who might bring it to church and start shooting? We didn’t know, but we could not rule that possibility out.
After that incident, Martha would always preach with her cell phone on the pulpit, and the Sheriff’s Office on speed-dial. Fred’s outburst—and our church leaders’ subsequent decision to allow Fred to return to church without putting security policies and behavioral covenants in place to prevent similar disturbances in the future—was the beginning of the end of Martha’s and my ministry at Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC. We would never again feel comfortable leading services there, and we soon resigned.
I was reminded of Fred’s outburst by the November 5, 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which a gunman killed 26 people. Many of us think that a mass shooting “can’t happen in our church,” or in any UCC church—but I suspect we’re whistling past the cemetery. Gay nightclubs have been targets of mass shootings. Churches of color have been shot up. So have Planned Parenthood offices, mosques, and synagogues. I don’t know why it couldn’t happen in a UCC church.
In a recent CNN.com article, CNN religion editor Daniel Burke noted that, after reading numerous headlines about “bomb threats at more than 100 Jewish Community Centers, vandal[ism] and attack[s at] dozens of mosques” and synagogues, and “shootings at churches across the country,” people might well believe “that sacred spaces are unsafe and that religion is under attack in America” (“The Truth About Church Shootings,” November 10, 2017).
To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at https://carducc.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/praise-the-lord-and-pass-the-bump-stock-and-ammo-canister/