Church Where Police Must Wait Outside

Posted on May 15, 2012

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Wesley United Methodist Church

114 Main Street,  Worcester, MA

May 13, 2012

Should a worshiping congregation be open to all people?  If so, at what point does behavior dictate removal?

Two weeks ago a visitor to worship at  Wesley UMC Worcester was surrounded by three police officers seeking his removal.  The church leadership did what one may expect of mature, sensitive servants of Jesus:  the pastor stopped his message, walked to the apparent fugitive in the pew and asked the police officers to wait in the lobby for the man who was not threatening anyone; an usher notified a children’s leader to keep young people who were not in the sanctuary away from the sanctuary for the remainder of the service; the church council later wrote a letter to the congregation supporting steps taken that morning yet also recognizing the need for clear policy around safe sanctuary.

I had already planned to worship with this congregation on Mother’s Day and this recent development only heightened my interest in a church with a reputation for inclusive worship.  We parked about a block away from Wesley UMC directly in front of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, a church I reviewed last year.  In that review I criticized a certain church member for taking the best spot near the door with her blue Miata, a cute convertible  freckled with progressive bumper stickers.  On the day of my visit the car was yet again parked at the front door of her church.   After I put the camera away a police guard standing in front of the Unitarian Church made his way over to the suspicious guy taking pictures of a member’s car.  Suspicious indeed.  Why was a security guard standing in front of the Unitarian Church?  Had the church heard that a “wanted” man sought refuge across the street at the United Methodist Church?  Had they hired security detail to protect themselves from such surprising strangers who stroll the streets of this urban center?

I learned from the police officer that the visitor who attended Wesley UMC for worship at 10:30 that day had been attending worship at the Unitarian Church thirty minutes before.  The man disrupted the service with suggestions that he served a prophetic role.  The pastor of the Unitarian church left the pulpit to sit with the man, encouraging him to be considerate of those gathered for worship.  The man remained indignant and the pastor walked him out of the church where the conflict intensified, escalating to the point where police were called.  It turns out this visitor had a history of mental illness and a criminal history of violence.  I learned all of this not from the police officer but from the Unitarian Church letter written to the congregation.  Read the letter HERE.

Churches have public buildings, yet they reserve a right to deny access to dangerous people, do they not?  The pastor of the Unitarian Church offered the analogy of a shell:  organisms naturally protect themselves.  Each church must consider the extent of their welcome and inclusivity.  Are level three sex offenders welcome?  One of the most progressive congregations in Worcester, Hadwen Park Congregational Church (UCC), recently affirmed that the safety of children supersedes the magnanimous welcome of all God’s children.

My son and I continue past the convertible Miata toward our destination for Sunday worship, Wesley UMC–the church that offered sanctuary to a stranger carrying criminal baggage.  How would the church welcome and include us?

WINDOWS:  Where did some message from God come shining through?

Gaaawwwthic Majesty.  Wesley was created as a merger between Grace and Trinity Methodist churches in the 1920’s.  It is reported that the trustees and other members personally guaranteed the loan of $350,000 needed for construction.  Members of the women’s group sold their own jewelry in order to purchase a proper, marble altar.  The windows and altar are quite spectacular.  The organ and interior design are breathtaking and lead naturally to awe and wonder.  I recently re-read a sermon given to me by John Saunders Bone months before his death by pancreatic cancer.  John pastored a church on Madison Avenue in New York City but also worked across the street from Riverside Church, a building similar to Wesley UMC Worcester, architecturally.

“I was a lad of 13.  My father and I were on a day trip from Boston to New York.  Seeking relief from the heat, we rode a double-deck bus north from midtown Manhattan. Coming up Riverside Drive we saw the church, and getting off went inside, walking directly to the great nave, a space rising to groined ceiling 100 feet above the aisle.  There were many people moving about me as I started down the center aisle.  Quite suddenly, I was overcome with a strange sensation.  No longer aware of people, even of my father close at hand, everything and everyone receded into background.  In the dimness of that place, I experienced a stillness and coolness, but something more–a presence such as I had never experienced before, and have not experienced with quite the intensity since…I remember now little else about that New York trip except that, for a moment or two, I lived with God.”

These cathedrals continue to tax modern members, yet they still pay dividends.  Some of us still sense the living God in such majestic places.

Church of All Nations.  The man I interviewed after service spoke of the congregation as a church of all nations where “Black…White…does not matter.”  The choir director of the Ghanaian Choir died this past week and the man I interviewed told me the church would be gathering that afternoon to mourn together.  I sensed that people of the church would gather not for a simple funeral but something more like a long, informal wake.  I wondered if both whites and blacks would attend the gathering.  Given the way folks tended to segregate themselves during the worship hour it seemed unlikely that many white congregants would attend.  The segregation is obvious at fellowship time too.  So it isn’t as though this congregation has solved the riddle of “Identity Theory” or “Why Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria.”  A congregation that aspires to be a place for all people is at least asking the right sets of questions and presumably offering safe space for answers to be heard.

The King Had a Lively Court.  At Wesley UMC Worcester it is hard to dispute the claim that the organ is king of all instruments.  My son and I viewed the action movie “The Avengers” at a local cinema the day before attending worship together.  The seats rumbled in similar ways on Saturday at the Cinemark and Sunday at Wesley leading to a visceral sense of power.  Some may well come to this building solely for the strength of this one instrument in capable hands.  The hymns of the day were well chosen to accentuate the great instrument.  “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” (previewed below) is such an example.  On this particular Sunday we were also treated to a brass trio,a very quite bell choir, and to a Ghanaian choir rhythm section!  The French horn player did not quite sound professional as the trumpet and trombone, but the sound of brass in that space was angelic, all the same.   To those Ghanaians gathered around me who had remained motionless through all of those great antiquated hymns and classical orchestrations, the drumbeat-driven praise song offered welcome, hip gyrating, familiarity.

WALLS:  What obstructed some message from God from shining through?

A Long, long, long, long road to Emmaus.   After offering a greeting “Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mothers out there,” an informally attired woman  continued the welcome: “You can probably tell that I am not Pastor Shandi!  He is taking a well-deserved break today.”  It did not seem to me that the church was well-served by the pastor’s replacement today.  She did not speak from the pulpit or lecturn where we might easily see and hear her or even from the raised chancel but rather from the nave.  I could not see her at all.  She kept her back to the congregation throughout the children’s message.  However the major obstacle to hearing the leader this day was boredom.  She used five minutes to tell young people the story about the Road to Emmuas, then moments later the exact story from the Bible was shared in it’s entirety (Luke 24:13-35) with little feeling.  The message was entitled “Lessons from the Road to Emmaus”, but we did not get to any “lessons” about the passage until 11:18am, fifteen minutes after hearing the story of the road to Emmaus again, this time with what seemed to be a touch of midrash (naming the unnamed disciple “David”).   But no amount of midrash could keep me interested in a third telling of this story!

I learned that the speaker of the day is the youth director.  I believe it is a temptation for clergy who need “well deserved breaks” to accept damn-near-anyone who will fill the pulpit cheaply in these cost-cutting times.  But I was surprised to see such a substitute on this unofficial high-holy-day  when it seems a good crowd of 146 attended on Mother’s Day.  If leaders are going to invite inexperienced substitutes to preach, I recommend they receive a book which was given to me by a colleague, “Communicating for Change” by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones.  I like their suggestion that a sermon should follow a somewhat prescribed path toward a destination in what they call “ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE.”  It starts with the speaker’s credibility these days and not necessarily with the Bible’s credibility.  That no longer works as it did when these big cathedrals were built.  Then the message engages hearers to connect with the speaker’s dilemma.  Our speaker Sunday skipped both of these and simply gave us 15 minutes of the third step “GOD.”  So when she finally tried to circle us back to caring with three very brief points–“How does Jesus work? Through encounters like Emmaus; ” How do we recognize its Jesus? Feel our hearts warmed; How do we respond? Share our story– most of us were checking our watches.    ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE.

Poor Communications.  I searched the church website for history of the church and found nothing.  A Google search led me to an extensive study completed by WPI around the possibility of installing solar panels on the roof.  It would take 22 years of energy savings to recover the cost of the installment.  That report gave me the history of the church; it did not come from the church’s site.  The website had a menu option for “Ghanaian Association,” but there is nothing listed there.  I checked “Youth Group” and found details written in early 2011 for summer programming that was “TBD.”  A separate web page for the youth group was similarly out-of-date.   Once we arrived at the church I found one more piece of communication out-of-date:  the bulletin.  Now, this will seem petty, I’m sure, but here goes.  The program did not list several key pieces of information for the service.  1.  The gospel reading was not listed.  2.  A collection for Church World Service was taken by the children, but no words in the program helped us to understand what this mission was all about nor did they prepare us to empty our pockets of change. 3.  At one point ushers walked down the aisles with blue cards held high in the air, but I had no idea why.  I presume these were prayer cards?  Parking validation?  Daily horoscopes?  But here is my biggest gripe:  The bulletin cover.   Yet another church has printed a picture of its building on the front cover.  We’ve already seen the church building from the outside!  Is there no symbol that communicates who the church is on the inside or

better yet, that communicates the day’s lesson or theme in art?  The worst part to me was the cross and flame.  Was that worth the cost of using a color printer?  That tiny bit of red?  Is there no United Methodist clip art with a higher resolution graphic that will not make the flame look like it is made with Legos?  I know, I’m being picky.  But look at some other examples from churches who do not use images of their buildings or color ink.

Announcements were a let-down.   Announcements are like the squeaky brakes on a school bus, you know they are coming and you know they are part of the whole package of transportation, but you dislike them all the same.  The church across the street asks members to attend a meeting thirty minutes prior to the worship service in order to hear church announcements and business.  I liked that.  Contemporary churches like Life Song meeting at the local theater offered announcements via PowerPoint.  I liked that too.  I am less enthused by announcements that take place at the beginning or end of service, though I can articulate a rationale for placing them at either point, in spite of the way they interrupt the flow of worship and response.  But I need for the announcements to be given by one, good, informed presenter.  Wesley UMC invites everyone with an announcement to “come on down” at the conclusion of the service just before the final hymn.  There were seven people offering announcements about the men’s group, youth group, liturgical dance group, the “Esther Circle, ” an announcement which was completely garbled to me, and an invitation to offer $600 to help the Ghanaian choir get to Virginia.  It was exhausting to this visitor.  Why must we all listen to announcements which do not pertain to us (men’s group, youth group, etc.).  That’s what the website and the program are for!

Missed Opportunity:  Awareness of Culture and History.  From my research I learned that Wesley UMC Worcester held its first service on May 6, 1923.  I was in worship on what could have been an anniversary celebration.  Or maybe it was held the week before?  Given the lack of history on the website, I suspect the anniversary came and went with little recognition.  On this Mother’s Day I again felt a conflict about elevating “mothers” above other women.  Just this week Time magazine featured a cover with the title “Mom Enough” which raised old controversies and shame around being proper mothers.  Churches have the opportunity to mitigate against those feeling of alienation felt by many women and their children on days like this.  Instead, the Wesley UMC bulletin listed Proverbs 31:  “A good woman is hard to find…”  along with a simple, short prayer for which mothers were expected to remain standing while the rest of us…the REST OF US…sat down:

Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children, so you watch over your church.  Bless all these women, that they may be strengthened as Christian mothers.  Let the example of their faith and love shine forth.  Grant that we, their sons and daughters, may honor them always with a spirit of profound respect.  We pray this through Christ our Lord.

As I researched the Ashanti people (like the man I interviewed), I learned that their is matrilineal, tracing ancestry from mothers rather than fathers.  What a great opportunity for cultural awareness at Wesley UMC, but it was a missed opportunity.

INTERVIEW:  I ask four questions regarding this service, beliefs about Jesus and the Church, and about personal preferences.  Subject was a fifty-something man with a thick accent.

What kind of message came through for you today?

We ought not to think that Jesus isn’t around.  The empty tomb proves he is still here.

Why do you come to this church? 

This is a church of all nations and all people.  It doesn’t matter here if you are black or white.  I started coming with my wife.  She died three years ago, but I keep coming.

What kind of music do you listen to in your car?

I listen to gospel music in my native language, Ashanti–Twi is the language.

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Posted in: Changing Church