A couple Sundays ago, I had the chance to worship at Park Rose United Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon with a group of confirmation students on retreat. I was really looking forward to worshipping with pastor Don Frueh, who I suspected brought the same energy and joy to his preaching that he does to the rest of his life. Sure enough, the service was full of song and spirit.
Until, that is, worship was interrupted by an unplanned intruder. A white man, in a shirt with “God” written in shiny letters on front, walked up the aisle clapping loudly and shouting, “Listen up! Listen up!”
At first, I’m pretty sure most of the congregation thought he was a plant, a visitor brought in by Don to illustrate the theme of the day, “embracing otherness.” But when the man reached the chancel shouting about the dangers of “homosexuality,” accusing Don of telling lies and demanding that he sit down, it became clear that this was an uninvited guest, not an invited one.
A few members of the congregation began to circle the man. I don’t know what I was thinking when I joined them. Maybe of what I kind of support I would have wanted in such a situation. Maybe of the confirmation class in the second row, for whom I was responsible.
I do know I was very afraid.
There was more shouting, and it became clear that no dialogue was going to be possible. After a minute, which felt much longer, I helped escort the still shouting man back down the aisle, out the church door.
The next day, I talked to Don on the phone. I wondered how Park Rose UCC would respond.
Don was adamant in his answer.
I expected him to be talking about hiring security guards or installing surveillance cameras. Knowing him, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my colleague and friend Don was talking instead about love and radical welcome.
The plan going forward for him was not to retreat into a secure fortress. The plan going forward was to love more. The plan going forward was to continue to extend a radical welcome. “We do not have to accept abuse,” Don says, “but we do have to follow Christ’s gospel, which is love.”
The next day the man was gone, his words no longer even echoes in the sacred space he tried to desecrate.
The next day, all that’s left was this—Christ’s gospel, which is love.
Jennifer Brownell is the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Vancouver, Washington, and the author of Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath, her inspiring memoir.