Lepers of Today

 

My effort at an OP-ED piece, written 2012

He came into our church and sat in the rear of the sanctuary.  He looked with eager eyes at all of us, craving love and acceptance in a small corner church, at the intersection of Mt Pleasant and Spring Garden.  He was accompanied by a friend, a woman who had stood by him through his recent prison sentence for molesting a young boy.  She had reported him after finding him fondling one of her sons as he gave him a bath.  Too much temptation, way too much temptation for a man that was abused as a boy himself.  Many years earlier, he had been walking home from school when a neighbor man called him into his house and released a passion Rob had never known…and changed his life permanently.

But church was a place of refuge, a place where he was asked to play the church organ as a young man.  Now he was an older 50-something, but still loved the acappella singing and the rich blend of instruments present in a worship service. So, when I turned around to see Rob and his girlfriend at the back of the church, it’s no wonder he looked thoroughly happy.  He felt free at last and wanted to give God thanks. 

“Rob Meyers has been asked to wait to attend our church,” an elder informed us the next Sunday.  We sat stunned listening to how a probation officer had called to make us aware of Rob’s past offenses and the risk of relapse.  It was Meghan’s Law in action to protect the public, especially our children, from victimization by sex offenders.

We as a church were not prepared.  In 2002, we did not have any background checks or criminal checks in place for any of the persons working with children. Voices clamored for attention: those with young children, those with a history of sexual abuse, and those feeling led to minister to Rob. There were a lot of ultimatums being thrown around like “if Rob comes, we’re leaving,” “There are no second chances for sex offenders.” People shared about their own sexual abuse stories and how they “would never” let anyone like that near their children. “We need to protect our own rather than let someone new in that could cause harm to our children.”

Then in the fall of 2003 a new pastor was installed and we were glad to bring all the frayed edges and frazzled nerves to new leadership. Our conference minister and other members of church leadership spoke at congregational meetings to discuss Rob’s possible attendance. The faces changed for each meeting, but none of them seemed to prevent our desperate fall into an abyss of dissension, distrust, and judgment. We filled out surveys about how we saw the issue and whether it was important enough for us to leave the church. I felt confident that our pastor would come to a good decision.

“I think it is best if Rob not attend our church at this time and that we find other ways to ‘be church’ to Rob,” our pastor said in March of 2005.  

I was Church Council Secretary at the time and a few days after this decision, we had a church council meeting. I felt physically sick over the decision and let them all know it.

“How could we decide this? How can we not allow him to come to our church?” I ranted and raved about hypocrites, homosexuality, and child molesters.  The next day I felt spent and depressed.

I believe it was during this time that I stopped having faith in the goodness of humanity.  I started expecting all people to respond to others in a wary, suspicious manner… even among Christians who go to church every Sunday, even among my family, even among my friends. Fear is a powerful adversary that usually wins… even in churches with a history of persecution and exclusion.

“I’m tired of waiting for a decision and will not be coming back,” Rob said at the end of 2007. When he said this a part of me died. For the last 5 years about ten of us from church had been meeting with him in an off-site location for the Sunday school hour, praying that he could someday attend our church. But Rob decided he no longer wanted to have anything to do with our church or any church that subjected him to an Inquisition of review and distrust.

Where do sex offenders go for support and sustenance?  Whether it’s in prisons or in churches, they often feel like the lepers of our society, forced to live in the outskirts of our cities, forced to alert others of their presence with a bell.

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