Vandals can't close church's doors

City Diary: Lance A.B. Gifford

May 24, 2000

IN ALL probability, the creep had no understanding of the two meanings of gravitas. Either would have served him well. When he busted up our church that Tuesday morning, gravitas could have taught him a lot.

The choirmaster discovered the vandalism and I was next to see. The wall around the ambulatory had been scaled, wonderful old brass and wood mountings had been damaged, and furniture scattered about.

At St. John's in Mount Washington, our policy is to keep the church open daily. We feel that we hold these buildings in trust for the community and do our best to make them available to all our neighbors, whoever they are. In the past 15 years, we have been "hit" maybe five times -- not a bad score, considering the decline of civility in the city.

The cop who responded to the 911 call, a thoughtful young man, young enough to be my son, tried to explain to me that the city had changed and that our open-door policy is rather archaic.

His argument had some merit, yet the doors will stay open.

Not infrequently, when I have to go to the church building on a weekday errand, I notice a person (or persons) sitting or kneeling quietly in a pew; I try not to disturb them. Rarely is it a member of our congregation, but rather someone who knows the place is open to him or her. How could I ever lock these doors?

The nice young cop (Chris) thinks I'm probably a little addled, but he's trying to be helpful, too, unaware that I have spent over a generation in urban ministry.

He asked if he could do anything that would make us feel a bit more secure in the next few days. I told him that on Wednesdays a bunch of Jewish ladies had a painting class in the church hall, and if he just hung around about 9:30 or so that they'd probably feel a bit more secure.

"Jewish ladies?" was his response. "I thought this was an Episcopal Church."

"You forget we're in Mt. Washington," I told him, "and the building is open to the community. These ladies are our dear friends."

Let's go back to gravitas, since that's what this is all about.

One definition refers to the greatness and solemnity of the church of God. The church is there for God's people to find solace and a place of repose during the trials of our life here on earth: The church as a defining place for our souls and our community. The creep missed that point. We surely would have given of ourselves to meet whatever legitimate needs he had. That's our job and that's our stated mission.

And gravitas once again: It's the force that pulls you back to earth. To stand on top of a place where only wine and wafers belong is to challenge gravity, and of course, you will fall.

Where he stood is the place where humans learn to soar, not fall to the ground. Maybe he will return and learn that.

So our doors will stay open.

Today's writer

Lance A.B. Gifford is the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Mt. Washington.

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