catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 20 :: 2013.11.01 — 2013.11.14


Open doors on a dark night

On the evening of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in the sanctuary of my church in the heart of downtown Columbus, about a block from the Ohio Statehouse.  I had decided to open the church to anyone who might want a place to sit and pray, meditate, or just stare into space.  Our church building was 141 year old that year.  It was big, probably one hundred feet long, fifty feet wide and high.  You could have put my three-bedroom house into that space along with three or four more just like it.  The place was one of the oldest public spaces in the city.  It just seemed to me that opening the sanctuary was the right thing to do.  I had only three visitors.  Here’s some of what I wrote during my three-hour vigil.

7:30 p.m.

A horrifying day!  Words all but fail me.  I watched  (several times replayed) as some several thousand people died in fire and an immense crumbling of steel, concrete and glass.

Such indescribable evil, such vicious, poisonous hatred!  What barbarism has been loosed in the world!

And what terror and what bottomless sorrow!  What utterly pointless loss of life and potential!

And now will we see a blossoming of hatred and vengeance among our neighbors?  Will we too want to see blood let?  Will we demand to see vengeance meted out in double measure?  Will we lust to see little Afghani children lying dead in the dust?  God save us now from ourselves.

My but the panicky rumors are flying!  From the desk clerk at the Holiday Inn around the corner, I learned that the Hyatt across the street from the church has received a bomb threat.  Apparently, no one at the Hyatt is aware of that since their doorman and valet parkers are calmly greeting guests or seeing them into their cars, helping carry luggage in, and doing all their usual tasks.  Neither did the Columbus police or fire departments seem to be aware of the bomb threat, since they were nowhere to be seen.

I’ve heard from the clerk at he Adams Mark Hotel that gasoline is now selling for $4.00 per gallon and will be $5.00 a gallon tomorrow.  R.K. called Meg [my wife] to say that it would be $4.00 a gallon tomorrow.  When I passed the two stations at the entrance to the freeway, both were festooned with long lines of cars, but I did not notice what price they wanted for their gasoline.

I am sitting in the church’s sanctuary as I write this.  A member of the Hyatt’s management called this afternoon to inquire if we might be open for their stranded guests.  (All the airports in the country are closed.)  I decided to open the sanctuary this evening from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.  I called most of the other downtown hotels to let them know.  Some seemed interested, other barely listened to the details and gave me a perfunctory, “Thank you, Pastor.”

Oh, well, so much of what we do these days seems to be a sort of ministry of presence.  I have all the lights on, the front doors open, and I’ve put signs up on the front of the building:



7:00 to 10:00 p.m.

So far (it’s now 8:25) one person has stopped in, a guy looking for help.  He’s a resident in a substance abuse halfway house.  The program is losing its house, and so he must now find a place to stay on his $330/month disability payment.  A tough job — I might say impossible.  He wanted a bus pass and a sack lunch. [Part of our ministry was to make and distribute sack lunches every weekday.]  I gave him a lunch, but I couldn’t find the bus passes.  Vicky [our secretary] has apparently moved them.   I told him to come by tomorrow.  He said he would.  His name is Derrick.

Anyway, we look open to anyone who passes by.

Aha!  A well-dressed, middle-aged man has just come in.  I said, “Hello.”  He said, “Good evening.”  I said, “How are you?”  He said, “Fine, thank you.”  And went in to sit at a pew.  He doesn’t seem to want to talk.

He sat for a bit and then left, thanking me as he went out.

So, who am I to judge whether this evening is an effective use of the electricity and my time?  This is what downtown church ought to be doing this evening.  And this is what the gospel compels me to do.  God will have to tend to the matter of effectiveness.  I’m here with the lights ablaze doing my part.

I do seem to remember reading somewhere that immediately after news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, some sixty years ago, people flocked into the churches to pray.  That may, of course, not be true.  But it seems somehow right.  There may be people flocking to churches somewhere else this evening.  I hope so.  But somehow, I suspect that “flocking” is probably too strong a term for whatever people are doing.

Things are different in America after sixty years — sixty years of rather extraordinary domestic peace and prosperity.  Yes, there have been some disturbances in the peace and disruptions of the prosperity.  Of course, not every segment of American society has enjoyed prosperity or even peace.  But by world standards, most Americans’ troubles and trials have been personal and private.  Very few people living today have experienced an extended interruption in their lives due to some large-scale social upheaval or widespread and long-term communal violence.

Now, something almost like that seems to have struck our sheltered lives.  Time will tell whether the events of this day will herald such a breach of our peaceful, comfortable lives.  But if expensive gasoline is the main thing occupying people’s minds this evening, I’m not surprised that they aren’t flocking in here.  They’ve gone to worship at the temple of their petroleum idols.

11:40 p.m.

As I wrote the last line above, a stocky, well-dressed guy of about 40 came into the sanctuary.  He was walking in a very unsteady way in the narthex, but what really made me sense that something wasn’t quite right was the fact that just inside the sanctuary at the beginning of the aisle he genuflected with a thud and then said to me in a slurred sort of way, “May I enter?”  Being caught a bit off guard, I came out with this eloquent welcome: “Uh, yeah, sure.”

He swerved up the long aisle (75 feet) and knelt heavily on the kneelers I had put in front of the communion table.  He began to pray in a loud emphatic mutter, mixed with what sounded very much like sobs.

I began to pray for him.  But I didn’t know quite what to make of him.  As I prayed, I began to feel convinced that there was a very real spiritual struggle taking place, that there was a very real and very evil presence at work in and on this man, though I really had no strong sense of what that might be.

I thought, maybe he had lost someone close to him in New York or D.C.  But somehow that didn’t seem right.  In any case, as I began to plead with God to drive away that evil presence, the fellow’s muttering became more calm.

Eventually, he stood up and very unsteadily began to walk toward the choir room door in the front wall of the sanctuary opposite the way out.  He somehow clambered over some folded risers belonging to a local choral group that were stacked in that corner of the sanctuary.

When he started off in that direction, I hurried down to him and met him coming around from behind the grand piano that was also in that corner of the sanctuary.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m going to my room,” he said, as though that should have been obvious to me.

“You’re in a church,” I said.  “Are you staying in a hotel here in town?”

“This is a church?” he asked, incredulous.


“How did I get in here?”

“You just walked in.”

“I did?”


“This is a church?” he asked again, looking around.

“Yeah.  What hotel are you staying in?”

“Hmm.  I don’t know.”  He tried to puzzle that out for a moment.

I walked him back to a pew near the back of the sanctuary so that he could pray some more…and, I hoped, sober up some.  He did both.  But I could see that he was obviously very distressed about something.  So, finally, I went over and sat in the pew beside him and said, “So, what’s up?”

He was ready to talk.  His ideas were still pretty garbled, but I eventually sorted out the basic facts.  His name is Don.  He is not here in town because of the attacks.  He’s here for a conference that ends tomorrow.  He’s an alcoholic.  He’d been sober for a number of years.  He’d lost his sobriety briefly about two and a half years ago but quit again and had remained sober until just before he left home for the conference here in Columbus.

His family still thinks he’s sober.  He’s afraid to “be honest” with them.  He doesn’t want to drink.  He doesn’t want to lose his family.  I told him that I thought he was more likely to lose his family by not being honest with them than by being honest with them.

He said that he knows that he needs God’s help.  But he feels unworthy.  I explained that it is precisely that feeling of unworthiness that opens the way for God to come into his life.  I offered to pray with him for God to forgive him and to come and help him.  He said, “Okay.”  And so, that’s what we did.

At ten o’clock, I closed up the church.  I looked up the schedule for an AA meeting.  There was one starting around that time at a non-profit social service center in a neighborhood just north of downtown.  I took him up there.  We found the meeting.  I introduced myself and Don to some of the folks standing around outside the door.  There was not the least bit of awkwardness.  They embraced him without a need for explanation.  I left Don in their warm, welcoming and wise hands.

And so, the dramas and traumas of life come all together in big and small sizes.  And we serve as we are called at any given moment.  To God be the glory.

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