I was recently in a worship service when the solemnity of the moment was unexpectedly interrupted. A young woman entered the sanctuary and, with the service well underway, walked down the long aisle and took a seat near the front. It was impossible not to see her.
As she joined other worshippers seated on the pew, she spoke audibly, directing her conversation to no one in particular. Her appearance signaled she was probably homeless: disheveled clothing, hair in disarray and otherwise generally unkempt. Surprisingly, she sat through the anthem, sermon and other portions making little disturbance, except for a brief comment here and there.
Following the morning message, the pastor called to the front some members who were relocating to another state, wishing them well and thanking them for their significant participation in the life of the congregation.
During the special recognition, the young woman arose from her seat, joined the pastor and the couple, and said something that I could not understand as I sat in the rear of the congregation, my favored place when in morning worship. Then she bid farewell to everyone and proceeded up the long aisle in conversation, leaving the worshippers in something of a state of surprise— if not shock.
The pastor was masterful as he witnessed this unusual activity during the otherwise dignified and solemn service. His obvious calmness conveyed to the worshippers that everything would be all right. And the congregation did remain quiet, if a bit uneasy, throughout the unfolding drama.
As the young woman left the sanctuary and building, the pastor seized the moment and began to teach. He provided one of the most effective pastoral moments I have experienced in worship.
‘Stuff’ all around
Speaking from his heart, he reminded the congregation that the obviously disturbed woman from the streets was no less a child of God than those seated before him in Sunday finery. She was dealing with “stuff” —his term—that obviously had distorted her reality. But all of us have stuff with which we are dealing, reminded the pastor. He delivered what amounted to a second sermon, which I suspect many found more memorable and helpful than the fine one whose title appeared in the morning bulletin.
It could be the young woman had received something meaningful in the short time she joined all of us in worship. The pastor said the congregation should pray that as she journeyed elsewhere in the city, she would find hospitality, even healing—and that her most immediate needs would be met. He reminded the worshippers once more that we all have issues, thus there is no room for spiritual arrogance or self-righteousness, or for false pity.
Perhaps the one difference between the visitor and the rest of us worshippers was this: We know there’s One in charge, no matter what stuff we’re dealing with. On the other hand, maybe she knows too, somewhere in that troubled mind and spirit. She remembered, so that morning she went to church!
It was quite a service. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I left feeling I had really been to church! And I remain deeply grateful for having seen pastoral sensitivity at its best.
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.