Upon entering the sanctuary, I can only find an available seat in the balcony on the front row.
This is no ordinary church service.
I’ve been waiting for this event all year. In this denomination, the pastors and missionaries from the entire district gather for an annual convention. So every person present is in full-time ministry.
After I met Mercy on a mountaintop, I knew I was called into full-time ministry. So by the time I turn 20, I’m married and on staff at a church 400 miles away from home. And this is my very first district convention.
When the music begins, the most prominent ministers take their seats on stage, and the assistant superintendent approaches the podium to lead us in several hymns.
While singing, a man collapses onto the floor. A white-haired woman rushes over to assess whether or not he is breathing. She swiftly loosens his tie, unbuttons the top of his shirt, and proceeds to conduct CPR.
From the balcony, I have a bird’s-eye view of the entire scene as it unfolds. The man’s face glows an ominous crimson while his limbs lie motionless on the floor. He’s directly below me on the first floor, and he looks dead.
The assistant superintendent waves for the orchestra to stop. It’s obvious the people near the back can’t tell what is happening. So the assistant superintendent explains that a man has fallen and asks the congregation to pray for our brother in need.
So we pray. And within minutes, everyone shouts a loud Amen!
Silence falls. We watch for any sign of movement. But he just lies there. Several men attempt to carry him out, but he’s too big. And the white-haired woman insists they leave him alone. So we wait in awkward stillness while death hovers over the man on the floor.
From the podium, the assistant superintendent assures us that someone has called 911. Then he shuffles his feet, as if searching for something else to say. After a few more moments, he states that we should continue with the announcements while we wait for the paramedics to arrive.
Some of the announcements are quite cheerful in nature and would normally induce applause, but we’re a little hesitant to clap at the moment. So when he finishes the announcements, he resumes the shuffling of his feet.
No paramedics yet.
Then the assistant superintendent announces that we should continue with the service since the man on the floor is being cared for. He calls the ushers forward and prays over the offering. The ushers look to one another as if to confirm their instructions, and then slowly, they turn to the pews and pass the offering plates along.
The orchestra begins playing the song listed in the program. It’s a jolly ole’ hymn, but its upbeat melody contrasts sharply with the mood in the room.
From the edge of the balcony, I stare in disbelief as the people on the first floor continue with the program. Am I the only one here who finds this whole scenario odd?
One of the offering plates is now moving down the row that leads toward the man on the floor. Oh my goodness, the offering plate is heading for the dead guy. Can’t they see his wife beside him? Won’t somebody please turn the plate the other direction?
No one moves. Except those who receive an offering plate from a neighbor. It’s as though a game of hot potato is happening down below. The people try to pass the plates as quickly as possible, like Pilate washing his hands to rid himself of this indecency.
The offering plate reaches the man on the floor. And the stranger holding it looks embarrassed and confused. Then someone from the other side of the aisle reaches for it. They stretch out their arms and pass the offering plate right over the dead guy.
I realize I’m holding my breath.
Why are we continuing as though nothing has happened in our midst? A man is dying. Right here among us. And we’re taking an offering?
I can’t help but think of the parable where a man was beaten and left for dead beside the road. Jesus said a priest passed by on the other side to avoid getting involved. A priest no less. And here we are — more than 2,000 pastors and missionaries under one roof — and we appear so inconvenienced by this poor man’s demise.
The program takes precedence over the person.
I feel like I should do something. But I’m not sure what I can do. I’m only 20 years old. I’m the least of everyone here. Why would anyone listen to me?
Oh, God, help us help this man. Help us to see past our plans and our programs. Help us to see the need before our very eyes.
From the back of the sanctuary, an elderly man begins walking down the center aisle. His silver hair and wrinkled face belie his inner strength, for his gait reveals of man of divine purpose. He reaches the front and looks up at the assistant superintendent. In a determined voice, he says, “Excuse me. I don’t mean to interrupt the service, but I believe the service has already been interrupted, and I think we should continue praying for our brother.”
I hear the murmur of assent.
Everyone stands to pray. Again. Only this time it’s more than a perfunctory prayer. No one leads this prayer from a microphone on stage. Rather, a chorus of men and women join together.
And we lose track of time. The paramedics arrive and transport the dying man on a stretcher. But we don’t stop praying.
The service never finishes its official program. And we’re never told what happened to the man who was carried out. But something else has transpired. I sense it inside me.
Jesus once told us about the Samaritan who rolled up his sleeves, unafraid of the scandal that might ensue from helping someone who had been badly beaten — someone who was labeled “unclean.”
We often refer to this story as The Good Samaritan, for the man did a good act. But I don’t think it’s enough to call him good. He was more than simply good.
He was brave.
It takes courage to stand and walk alone through a crowd who may not like what you have to say.
Sometimes God’s people are too afraid to do what is right.
Sometimes a congregation would rather go along with the status quo.
It takes courage to call an ambivalent people to prayer.
And the gentleman with silver hair — the one who walked down that center aisle at district convention — he never yelled or spoke with even a hint of hostility. He was peaceful yet purposeful, meek yet determined.
He was both good and brave.
For the next six years, I move from church to church, from one position on staff to another. Being in full-time ministry seems more like an effort to climb the ranks of the denomination’s hierarchy than an opportunity to serve. And it grieves me.
I find myself a young mother in an old church. With no community. So I force myself to smile on Sunday mornings. And I feel like the man who once collapsed in church. I’m not lying on the floor, but I feel just as dead inside.
Week after week, the people pass me by. They nod their hellos and move on. It’s like I’m that person lying on the side of the road. Perhaps my need isn’t as obvious with cuts and bruises. But I’m desperate for someone to see the hurt I carry inside.
The ministry can be so lonely. Marriage too.
In church, we tend to advertise our good works in printed bulletins and edited videos. We often applaud each other when we raise money for a “good cause.” And yet, we sometimes walk right past the wounded sitting in our pews.
We fail to see the wounded among us.
And it takes more than a good person to do something about it.
It takes a brave person to walk across the room.
Have you ever known someone
who bravely stood before a crowd to do the right thing?
Click here to read PART 6
To read more of His stories, please visit Jennifer’s place.
*These photos were taken two weeks ago at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.