Tragedy in Church

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.

Reflections

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.

Why?

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.

25 thoughts on “Tragedy in Church”

  1. Mental illness which includes depression, impacts approximately 20% of our population and it impacts far more when you consider the families, coworkers, and communities of those stricken. You make a great point in indicating we must continue to “… relentlessly cultivate empathy and compassion.” not only for those stricken with the illness but for the families and communities dealing with the impact.

  2. I continue to be impressed by PG and the comments he has made about the tragic events of last Sunday. Very impressive and so deeply loving. Praying for this man and the family and friends he left behind. 🙏🏻

  3. Thank you Gregg for the thoughts on why the church. I thought about that once I learned of this very tragic event and wondered… did he do it here because he at some point he had felt love and compassion from a church community and family and was longing for that love of people he wasn’t, for whatever reason, not feeling. My prayers are with his family during this time of loss for them.

  4. Thank you for these words to help us understand and to remind us of what we are all called to do in the world. Prayers for peace and comfort for his family

  5. Prayers for this man and for his family as they try to understand why and move forward. Prayers for you as you lead your congregation through a tragedy. God is all powerful and shows us grace and I believe you are correct that this man was looking for salvation in the place he knew he would receive it.
    Our family misses your weekly spiritual guidance.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about depression ❤️🙏 because I have dealt with it all my life and some days are unbareable! I haven’t been to your church in awhile and I would love to see about getting sign up for a ride!

  7. God bless you, Greg, and all those who responded to this tragic event. I will pray for the family and for the troubled soul who was experiencing so much pain.
    As you say, we must listen, hold our judgment, and strive for understanding of each child of God. While I am not always successful in doing so, I’ll continually aspire to show Christ’s love to others.

  8. Yours words are very insightful Greg. Prayers for his soul and family left to deal with the tragedy. I believe he felt the need to be in a holy place. May God grant all peace and comfort.

  9. I am the widow of a man who is no longer with us because he cared so much for all living things that he became overwhelmed with the weight of the pain. I can tell you that before he died, he told me he visited a church and a greeter shook his hand and said, “Pax Vobiscum.” It meant a great deal to him. He took his own life days later. I feel some solace that in the moment of that brief greeting, my sweet husband did indeed feel some peace. We so often underestimate the power of a glance, touch, text, any acknowledgement of being seen.

    There is no light without darkness. This comforted me in my darkest hours after his death. Now a member of MUMC, I feel this gentle reminder every Christmas Eve when the lights lower and we light our candles. In the darkest hours, all we need is a light to guide our way.

    Pax vobiscum, brother.

    And thank you, Pastor Greg. You have been a light for me.

  10. Although I am 1100 miles away from my church that I attended for 42 years I feel the pain that you all are suffering because of the sad event that happened last Sunday. Hopefully your gracious words and thoughtful blessings that you expressed in your comments Pastor Greg can be relayed to the family of the young man who felt lost. Blessings to all my church friends.

  11. Thank you for helping to make a little sense about his final act of desperation. It is comforting to know that he was greeted with a smile and a handshake

  12. Thank you, Greg. I felt such sadness that such a tragic event could happen in a place I called “home” but had complete confidence that you and the congregation would face it with understanding and the desire to learn and grow as Christ’s hands and feet here on earth. It is, indeed, a stark reminder of the need to be alert and sensitive to the issues of depression and anxiety, and to continue finding ways of making Church a safe, welcoming place for people to share their brokenness. I am proud of the greeters who are ALWAYS there at the front door to warmly welcome all who enter on Sunday mornings. The act of “welcoming the stranger” is holy and perhaps is THE first sign that a person has entered just such a safe place. I will be sharing your words with our new church staff here in Indianola, Iowa- we miss MUMC but are grateful to stay connected through technology. You all continue to inspire us in SO many ways!!

  13. Thank you Pastor Greg- there is another resource for all who are hurting, suffering, and/or struggling; NAMI.org -the National Alliance on Mental Illness- they do great work and provide hope and help for so many- I pray this knowledge will continue to bless those who might need it.
    Peace🙏😇

  14. Pastor Greg’s well chosen words were a consolation to me as I re-live the tragedy in my own family. I pray for peace for Joshua’s family, as he has finally found peace. No one knows the suffering of the victim and
    those he left behind.

    Evelyn Donnell

  15. One important fact that needs to be mentioned. There are all different levels of depression. And the level this man suffered it’s far beyond most we can understand. It was intensified by this man’s experience as a veteran. We need, as a community, to reach out and help organizations that specialize in working with veterans. God bless our soldiers for all they endure while serving to protect our freedoms while ensuring the sacrifice they make from their families left behind.

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