When our church receives new members, we share a covenant that includes the commitment to “journey together.” Often, we realize this can mean ‘journeying’ into unwanted, dark, difficult, or surprising places with each other. We have stood with each other as loved ones pass away. We stand with each other in the difficult role of being children of aging parents, or parents of growing children. We bear witness to the power of hope when someone we love struggles with depression. We celebrate commitments made, successes honored, and loves found. The Christian faith, we realize, is rarely about solutions; it is about the authentic and real journey of life and a common trust that our God walks with us, no matter what.
For a variety of reasons, a former bishop in another denomination found us in the immediate aftermath of a horrible car accident that resulted in the death of an innocent and lovely woman in a nearby community.
Rather than becoming a setting to explore the details of this accident, our congregation became a lifeline for him during the months he awaited his fate and eventual conviction of second-degree reckless homicide. Week in and week out, he attended worship, sang with us, prayed with us, and sought spiritual solace with us. His presence was quiet but consistent. He didn’t ask for special attention, indeed didn’t want to make us uncomfortable with his presence. As a person of faith on his own difficult journey, he simply wanted to be in worship with a community.
Over time, some in the congregation came to know who he was and quietly reached out to him, loved him, hugged him, and prayed with him. They didn’t ask him to explain or defend himself. They cared for him as a brother in Christ, plain and simple. On his last Sunday before going to prison, a few of us surrounded him in a small prayer circle in which we prayed difficult and honest prayers. Amid the tears, he made a point to tell two of us pastors, “remember that what you do here matters. It matters immensely.” He wanted us to know that while he was grateful for our pastoral care, most of the healing and solace came from ordinary members, many of them unknown to him prior to his attendance in our worship services.
While we didn’t seek out a role in this situation, our ‘call’ as people of faith is to bear witness to justice, to grace, to love, and to compassion. If the situation was different and the family of the deceased woman, an innocent victim of a horrible accident, was to come to us seeking solace, we’d embrace them as brothers and sisters in Christ as well. We’d stand by them in their pain and confusion. We don’t always get to choose our call and we can’t always plan compassion. We respond, we pray, and we do the best we can, with God as our guide.
For over a year now, I have been moved beyond words by the grace-filled love of my congregation in the midst of a horrible and confusing situation. No one here loved or reached out this new friend and his family to gain praise or recognition. It was done quietly, respectfully, consistently, and without regard for anything in return.
To my congregation I wrote: Thank you for bearing witness. Thank you for embodying love. Thank you for letting the Spirit of Grace flow through you. What we do here, indeed, really matters. Some of us also signed up to run in a memorial run in honor of the victim. Crossing the finish line, witnessing the joy in the face of the victim’s husband as he cheered runners of all ages, I offered a prayer of gratitude that he too has people journeying with him.
Rev. Winton Boyd is Senior Pastor at Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ in Madison, Wis.
Image: Illustration of community holding hands, STILLFX / Shutterstock.com