I think I know how those Bible-study attenders felt as Dylann Roof sat with them for about an hour, up til the moment their attacker pulled out a gun. Except for what followed, the experience of the poor victims is a common experience to many churchgoers. I have done exactly the same things that they did.
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.~ Hebrews 13
I have been in a small familiar gathering on Sunday morning with a few very familiar people, when a stranger walked in and sat down in our circle. Next to me, actually. He was a little grubby, a stranger who seemed definitely “off” and sat silently. I think he spoke briefly, just enough to indicate that he was not following our thread.
We go on with our Bible study, inviting our visitor to join in. He didn’t bring a Bible, so I slide mine over and point out the place where we’re reading. I know we are all wondering if this young man is a spiritual wanderer, looking for truth, if we might be instruments in helping him find his answer and have the blessed opportunity to give him material support as well.
Or maybe he means us harm. We cannot know.
He leaves when the class ends and reappears during the service, wearing a big hooded jacket, walking straight down the middle aisle after the service has been going on a bit. He sits down on the aisle, close to the dais where our pastor is speaking.
We do have roving trustees, men who patrol during the service, watching for teens skipping church or for someone to enter from the very busy four-lane suburban route on which our church sits. We do lock all but the sanctuary doors during the service. We are aware of the world in which we live. We do know that there are men and women who struggle with psychological unbalance. We are aware that there are people who hate us.
We try to balance our Lord’s command to love unfeignedly, without respect to superficial circumstances, truly, and with action…with human common sense to protect those for whom we are responsible.
But we cannot, and do not want to shut out the world. This is the Church. We welcome the stranger; we once were strangers. The Church is the place where the broken can find healing, where the angry can let go of his hate, where we find true love.
The church does not belong to us. It is the Lord’s, and he leaves the door open to every person. It is the place where we know we are all sinners, where the ground is absolutely level. Where I am reminded that I could easily be where any stranger has found himself.
After the service, we do not even speak our discomfort to one another. We hope he is simply a young man looking for a church, that he will make friends and integrate into our church family. We do not want to contemplate any alternative.
But, ashamed, we do run that alternative over in our minds.
If you are a regular attender at a Bible-believing church, you have likely faced the same situation that the victims did many times. I have. It’s a chance to put your belief in action and to be obedient to the Lord who bought your life at the cost of his own.
Relationships with human beings are necessarily risky. The Christians in South Carolina risked all. But we have no magic protection because we do the right thing.