I just completed an announcement for my parish bulletin that I never wanted to write. It explains that I’m no longer leaving the church doors unlocked when present for my office hours.
Instead, people must make appointments or otherwise let me know when they’re coming to clean or light a candle. This feels so wrong, so contrary to what the church should be about. How did we get here?
The trajectory began a couple years back when a former parishioner with a history of mental illness descended into meth use and began sending me bizarre and threatening texts.
Once, he somehow sneaked past as I sat in my office and left a letter on the altar table claiming God had anointed him to denounce me. He asserted the ability to heal HIV with his touch, and concluded with verbiage about bringing me to a moment of reckoning.
Further threats followed during Holy Week, and I’m grateful for some men in the parish who knew about the situation and took it upon themselves to patrol the parking lot during our Paschal (Easter) procession, in case there were an attempt to disrupt it or attack me.
Ever since, when I sit in my office working alone, I find my ears perking up as cars arrive, as footsteps climb the stairs, as the door swings open. It’s usually a friendly face or a delivery person. But until I see with my eyes, it could just as easily be a maniac with an arsenal and a lust for notoriety.
I tell myself I’m overreacting from ungodly fear. But last week an NPR interview forced my hand. The pastor of a Kentucky church was talking about the October tragedy in his town, where a crazed white supremacist randomly murdered two African-Americans at a grocery store.
First, the assailant tried entering this pastor’s church, when no one but himself and some staff were present. Fortunately, the doors were locked. Otherwise, they might’ve all been killed. The pastor was haunted by how close he’d come to having his people’s blood spilled in their sanctuary.
I’d love to keep our doors open. To have people streaming through to pray, light a candle, or otherwise experience some small encounter with the holiness of this place, in the midst of the week. But now, you’ll need an appointment.
Because in our age of mentally-ill gunmen — especially ones having their paranoia stoked by diabolical ideologies of hatred — I’d hate to see the onion dome and three-barred-cross on our sign, or the foreign-sounding “Orthodox” in our name, lead to this sacred place being violated.
Perhaps I’m being fainthearted, or fleeing martyrdom. But the Fathers warn against seeking martyrdom out of bravado. And on the very first Pascha, even the disciples kept the doors shut for fear.
Early Christians met in secret. And I’m certainly no wiser, braver or more insightful then they. Still, I hated making that announcement.