By Bill Webb
The recent burnings of several Alabama Baptist churches called to mind an occasion a few years ago when a couple of young people set a fire at a church construction site in St. Louis. Damage was limited, and the youngsters were caught.
The pastor and church leaders worked with the parents and the boys to make what happened a learning experience far short of filing a complaint and creating a juvenile police record. The boys were invited to come to the church on a given Sunday to admit what they had done and to ask the forgiveness of the congregation.
On the designated Sunday, only one boy was present. His parents were with him. At the invitation of the pastor, the three came to the front of the church and stood with him in front of the altar. After the pastor reminded the congregation of the offense, the boy — his head down — offered a brief apology for what he and his friend had done.
The boy and his parents were a white family, and the church was predominantly an African-American congregation. The unfamiliar congregation no doubt contributed to the youngster's timidity as he stood with all eyes upon him.
Then something happened that must have seemed most unusual to this boy and his mom and dad. The pastor invited the members of the congregation to come forward to greet this young man and his family. Virtually everyone left his seat and joined the procession.
One by one they came, shook the youngster's hand, told him they forgave him and — in most cases — threw their arms around him and hugged him hard. He was greeted by old members, median adults and other young people. Members treated the parents the same way. More than a few tears were shed that day.
Neither the parents nor the boy were members of the church, but the crowd treated that youngster like the prodigal son in the parable. In the Bible, that son returned to his father seeking forgivess, and he was treated far better than he deserved. He, too, was hugged when he came home and came clean about his sins.
Before the service ended, the pastor assured this family that they would always be welcome in this church. His invitation drew a hearty amen from congregants.
Whatever became of the youngster?
He may have sighed in relief and gone on his way, vowing never to get caught in his next episode of mischief. Or he may have left understanding how it feels when your life is touched by mercy and forgiveness instead of what everyone knows you really deserved.
The perpetrators of what appears to be a string of arsons involving Alabama churches are likely to be caught. Theirs was a federal offense, and the FBI was immediately activated. It is hard to know if the culprits will be remorseful. It is certain that they will be in a heap of trouble.
How these churches respond in this circumstance will be observed throughout the United States. Before now, the notoriety of these congregations and their ministries has likely not extended far beyond their county lines. In a sense, they now have nationwide influence; the eyes of many are upon them.
Often, a congregation's greatest witness is how it responds when it hurts the most. That's often when the true character of a church — or a Christian — reveals itself. That is when observers find out if the church really is different or if it is about the same as the rest of the world.
Those responsible for the church burnings in Alabama likely aren't pre-teens whose single act of mischief got out of hand as in the St. Louis incident. If they are caught, they will be charged with repeatedly committing federal crimes and will be prosecuted as mandated by law.
The affected churches, on the other hand, can choose how they will respond to those who sought to do them harm. Already, the occasion has presented an opportunity for the broader community of faith to pull together to rebuild what has been lost. But it also affords an opportunity for these 10 churches to seek out and demonstrate a distinctively Christian response to a curious, watching world.