A mentor has given me a spiritual practice this year to make a list of all the horrible scenarios that play out in my mind, but that don’t actually end up occurring. Like many people, I experience a type of anxiety on an almost constant basis. It’s not a clinical anxiety that causes physical discomfort or requires medication, but rather a low-key, ever-present belief that the worst thing that could possibly happen in a given situation is very likely to be the thing that will happen.
“Our congregations consist of many like me who are predisposed to fear and anxiety and worst-case-scenario mind racing.”
My list runs the gamut from the ordinary – that a presentation I give or meeting I lead won’t go well, to the slightly more extreme – that the poorly executed presentation or meeting will lead to me being terminated from my job, to the absurd – that the smoke I see in the distance on my way home is actually an airplane that has crashed into my house. When people who experience this type of anxiety find each other at a party in a crowded room, it’s an amusing sight as we share the fantastical thoughts we have. It’s even more amusing to watch the concern on others’ faces as they imagine how difficult it must be to exist in the world with these thoughts. But for us, it’s no more difficult than dealing with the extreme heat in Texas or the minor annoyance of a slow leak in a tire. We hydrate. We find ways to patch up the holes for a little while longer. We adapt.
A recurring fear that is at the top of my list – and was long before it became an actual issue – is that of a gunman entering my place of worship. One of the first news stories I remember from childhood was of a mass shooting at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kilgore, an East Texas town not far from where I grew up. That experience formed in my young mind a template – “Oh, this is a thing that happens” – and I went about ordering my world to accommodate this frightening fact. This mostly consisted of a hyperawareness in restaurants of where exit doors are and of the loose pieces of furniture I could use either to break over the head of the gunman or to break out a window and flee (in the very real chance that I wasn’t brave enough for the first option). I practiced this in my mind so much that somewhere along the way I stopped doing it consciously, and it just kind of occurred in the background.
However, places of worship add a deeper, more complex and sacred set of considerations.
“What I observed was disturbing. I had basically entered an NRA rally for religious organizations.”
Several years ago, when I was on staff at my church, I saw an advertisement for a “Congregational Safety” program being put on by a local ministerial alliance. This seemed to be something that was right down my alley, so I attended. What I observed was disturbing. I had basically entered an NRA rally for religious organizations. We were told that if there weren’t multiple people in our congregation with concealed handguns, then we didn’t actually care about the people in our church. We were given ominous, apocalyptic warnings of “It’s coming your way. If you don’t believe it, then I feel sorry for what’s going to happen to your church!” Literature was passed out about upcoming concealed handgun licensing classes prior to taking a break before the “real” training began.
As someone who was wrestling with the call of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to nonviolent resistance, I made a decision to leave before the “real” training got under way.
I have thought a lot about this event in the years since, and it is always brought back to the forefront of my mind when tragedies like Charleston or Pittsburgh or Christchurch, New Zealand, occur.
I initially felt a disdain for what appeared to be a social and political movement that valued aggression and force over the humility of the cross. (Incidentally, this should have prepared me for particular political rallies I would begin seeing on the news around 2015 and continuing even now.) But after that initial feeling subsided, I realized these people were no different from me. We both assume the worst thing that we’ve ever known to happen, however rare that thing may actually be, is probably just around the corner. We both struggle to believe the words from 1 John that “there is no fear in love,” and that “perfect love casts out fear.”
We have ordered our lives by a different set of principles than those found in the cross. My ordering doesn’t include the use of guns, but the principle of fear is basically the same.
“A man I didn’t recognize walked in and stood in the doorway during the sermon.… The anxiety boiled over and I thought, ‘Oh, OK. This is it. This is when it happens.’”
A few weeks ago this fear was put to the test. During worship, I typically sit in what I have dubbed my “introverts corner.” It’s dark, one of the last places people think to sit, and, naturally, near the closest exit. It’s not unusual for people to walk in the door and stand for a few moments while their eyes get acclimated to the darkness before finding a seat. On this particular Sunday a man I didn’t recognize walked in and stood in the doorway during the sermon. But he never sat down. He just stood there with his arms crossed.
I remembered my list and swallowed my fear. I asked if he would like to sit next to me. When he said “No, I won’t be here long,” the anxiety boiled over and I thought, “Oh, OK. This is it. This is when it happens.” I rehearsed my plan of escape in my mind until he left.
I should note that there was more than a little latent racism mixed in with my irrational fear, as the man was Latino. Had my mind been in a healthier place, this should have actually allayed my fears. Our church is in a Hispanic neighborhood, in a city where over a quarter of the population is Hispanic. So if someone is going to walk into our church off the street for a few minutes, chances are very high that it is going to be a Latino. And all the facts and data around mass shootings point to the fact that if it is going to happen, it is far more likely that the assailant is going to be someone who looks like me, a white male, than the visitor to my church on that Sunday.
Our churches should hold safety trainings and have plans in place for any number of potentially harmful scenarios. And our contingency plans should take into serious consideration what we believe about violence, retaliation and protecting innocent life – which requires far more prayer, thoughtfulness and reflection than “good guys with guns” arguments. At the same time, it is also imperative that we recognize that our congregations consist of many like me who are predisposed to fear and anxiety and worst-case-scenario mind racing.
We should be challenged to assess how this reality affects our worship. But we should also consider how it affects the ways in which we are distrustful of “the other” in our midst. Doing so will open avenues for prayer and reflection that will in turn open avenues for perfect love to drive out our fear.