A horrible event happened in the church I serve.
Last Sunday morning (Feb. 17), a man entered the building and asked a greeter where the rest room was. Once there, alone, he took his life.
Our staff and security personnel responded quickly and appropriately. Happening toward the end of the last worship service, the congregation and I were not aware of what had occurred until later.
In the aftermath, it brought home the reality that we may never be aware of the pain and brokenness a person may be experiencing. Whether in church, school, home or work, we simply cannot know what’s behind the masks we all wear. That means there are often no obvious signs that someone is losing the battle with their own personal demons.
This is a sobering reminder that judging someone is both wrong and impossible. Since we have no concept of what another person has been through, we really have no concept of what we would do in their shoes. The road leading through depression can appear hopelessly long.
What we can do, though, is relentlessly cultivate empathy and compassion.
The longer I live the more I’m impressed by the tremendous capacity of people to reach out to others in pain. My congregation, when they heard of the death, sent a flurry of emails, texts and posts expressing their shared hurt for the man and his family. They pledged prayers and offered openness for anything else they could do.
All this for persons they didn’t know.
That’s a partial answer to the obvious question, “Why did he choose a church?”
Perhaps he knew the church to be a place of love, respect and understanding. Perhaps he knew that the church would respond compassionately to him and to the ones he left behind.
In the midst of the tragedy of that Sunday morning, I am glad that one of our volunteers greeted the man with a handshake and a smile. The hurting person was about to make a heartbreaking mistake. Yet, that handshake and smile were perhaps a small validation, a small sign, that he was in a place that cared for him, regardless.
No one should fight their own personal demons alone. We are blessed in this country with professional services to help people confront what may feel like an overwhelming enemy. Resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) are a reflection.
Faith communities also offer support. They are safe space for people in such a battle. They are places to rest from the fight. They are places to find caring people who will walk their journey with them, no questions asked, and connect them to the professional help they may need.
In an age where it may be fashionable to see places of faith as irrelevant, it is in life-and-death situations where we may discover just how relevant they are. It is a cold world, and faith communities provide warmth and hope.
When Jesus once cast out demons from a man (Luke 8:26-39 ), the villagers became nervous. They asked him to leave. They were more comfortable living with demons than without them.
On the other hand, faith communities are bound together by people who are uncomfortable witnessing the torments of others. They join Jesus in challenging demons. They might not have his power, but they do share his empathy and compassion, which are enough.
It is my hope that all who are hurting will seek out such a place for themselves.
That may be the beginning of a new life, and not the end.