For nearly a year, the church I served before Holy Trinity, Advent Lutheran, was the target of someone I called the Pig Man. Every morning when I arrived at the church, I was greeted with his calling card: disgusting garbage strewn about, smeared into the pavement, piled in creative formations. It wasn’t just someone driving through the parking lot at night tossing trash out the window. This person went to the dumpsters at the supermarket in the wee hours of the morning and rooted for rotten produce, expired sauces, moldy pastries. Then he brought his find to the church and deliberately spread it about where we would have to clean it up in the morning, usually right outside the front doors. It was mean and vindictive. And it was a pain in the ass.
For a while I picked it up and went on with my day. But after a few months it started to bug me. When ketchup was smeared all over the windows and eggs splattered the steps, it was starting to feel personal. Then he left some dead roses beside the door and a rock with a note on it. On the note he wrote some obscure Old Testament Bible verse about religious people being destroyed for their wickedness. This had to stop!
I decided to do an overnight stake-out and wait to catch him in the act. A few men from the church caught wind of it and they stayed with me. We parked our cars elsewhere, entered the building and sat in the dark, looking out the windows all night. He didn’t come. Not until the next night when we were all home in our beds.
After 9/11, suddenly the visits from Pig Man stopped. So maybe he was in the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed. Or perhaps he was one of the terrorists who took them down. We had been suspecting an older student at the university across the street who was slightly off-balance. He happened to be Middle-Eastern. I figured what actually happened was he went home and couldn’t get back into the country. But who knows? All I really ever knew about Pig Man is that he was a sick-o and he clearly had issues with Christians in general and Christian churches in particular.
I’ve encountered a lot of people like that through the years. They hate me and everything I stand for. The fact that they don’t know anything about me doesn’t seem to matter; they clearly detest me. When they speak of the Church, it’s with disgust. They enjoy mocking and deriding Christian beliefs and practices. They lump us all together and whenever any Christian anywhere says something stupid or is caught doing something hateful, they have a field-day, once again vindicated in their contempt.
It’s hard to take it personally when someone hates me and they don’t even know me. Their animosity has nothing to do with me. It’s what I represent to them – the Church. And so, a part of me always grieves when I encounter a person like the Pig Man. What did the Church ever do to you to make you hate us so? How much have Christians hurt you that you would consider us all the enemy?
The congregation I serve now, Holy Trinity, is filled with people who have been hurt by the Church. They had every reason to leave their garbage on our doorstep and move on. And yet, their relationship with God is so important to them that they couldn’t give up. They gave Christian community another chance.
This is truly miraculous to me. For many of them, it must take every ounce of bravery to land in one of our pews on a Sunday morning. Their longing for God is stronger than the damage they have endured. The deeper the damage, the stronger the longing seems to be.
Often, when someone who has been damaged by the Church first returns to a worship service, the tears flow. They may not think I notice, but I do. Sometimes I want to stop everything and honor their pain; I want to envelop them with my arms, dry their tears, and invite the congregation to join me. But instead, I do something better than that. I preach the good news of a God who has always loved them and always will, from the moment they took their first breath until the moment they have breathed their last. And I offer them a meal of forgiveness, knowing that as much as they need to be forgiven, they themselves need to forgive as well. I trust that they will find wholeness in these expressions of God’s grace and the community that bears them.
Through it all, I thank God they are with us. They had every reason to leave their garbage in front of the doors and move on. But they walked through those doors instead. And they’ve come to the right place.