Tonight I was reminded of an event that happened 35 or so years ago and it stood in contrast to an event that happened tonight. It may show the different ages in which we live, or it may show different leadership styles in confrontation, but whatever it shows, I found it profoundly interesting.
Tonight the minister of our church, Guy Gray, spoke on “Understanding Militant Islam”. Guy (after 20+ years at our church) had taken a sabbatical over the late spring & summer. In addition to some time in Israel and time in Western Europe with his wife, Guy spent a month at Oxford University in England studying Islam. He arrived back the middle of August and was asked (with all the news of ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaida) to help church members understand some about Islam and specifically about militant Islam. (He noted that militant Islam is a small minority of Islam, but gets almost all of the press). It was an excellent presentation and may (but also may not because of what happened) be up on the church website soon.
But I want to write about not what happened in the first hour and a half of his presentation, but what happened in the last five minutes.
Guy said something to the effect of “In conclusion…” and a young man (maybe late high school age?) got up, move quickly to the platform and declared that he wanted to speak. You could feel the tension pulse through the congregation like electricity.
Two things happened: one, Guy invited him up to the platform and two, the security team sprang into action.
The security team was formed after an Easter service a couple of years ago when a mentally unbalanced man rushed the platform and tried to take control of the service. I wasn’t in that service, but the description from those who were was that it was very disturbing and that there was a feeling of “Oh no, what do we do now!?”
Beginning in the next few weeks and months a security team was formed. To the best of my knowledge they are not armed, but they are a defined group and they have defined organization, training and tasks. Several times I have seen the security team touching base at one side of the foyer before/between services. They wear ear pieces (like you see on Secret Service men and women around the President) and are just distributed around the building and the sanctuary, very unobtrusively.
A few months ago, as Loretta and I walked into the main doors of the church, there was a man who came storming out of the church screaming the most profane things and cursing. He was dirty, disheveled, unshaven and definitely out of control.
All of us froze.
Immediately, there were two members of the security team by his side talking calmly, but definitely moving him in a direction where they could speak to him privately. The greeter at the door quickly jumped into action and called the names of people that he knew, welcomed them and asked everyone to come on inside. It was handled as smoothly as could be expected.
Tonight, Guy invited the young man up. When the young man kept saying, ”I want to say something.” Guy very calmly asked him, “What would you like to say?” and the young man went into a speech about people misunderstanding Islamism and how Muslims love God and how the god they serve is the same god as the Christian God.
What I noticed was that 7-8 guys (mostly BIG guys!) were immediately up. One was about half way up each of the aisles, 2 were at the front of the stage (but still on the floor of the auditorium). They were almost within arm’s reach, but there was no attempt to grab or take the young man away. The staff person who is in charge of the security team was over at the side of the auditorium surveying the room (and I wonder if he was communicating with the team members through their ear pieces). The young man on the platform spoke for maybe 60 seconds and at a breaking point, Guy stepped in, asked his name, offered his own name and shook his hand and thanked him for speaking. In doing so he led him off of the platform. The young man walked, accompanied by the two security men who were at the front of the stage and one of them walked with the young man to the back of the auditorium where they sat down together. When we left, the young man was still sitting in the back with a few people (mostly security people) visiting with him calmly.
Pastor Guy made a comment about how these things were exactly like the things he had heard from Muslims during his time at Oxford and he thanked the young man for his words. Guy said a few more sentences and then closed in prayer and the session was done.
I believe it was handled masterfully. Guy was gracious. He did not try to shut the young man up, but also he didn’t let him go on and on. He let him say the essence of what he came to say, extended friendship to him, but also helped move him off the platform where people who could accompany the young man stood. If the young man had bolted off of the stage, or harmed the preacher and run…almost anything, there were enough security people to stop him and control him.
This stands in contrast with a similar session when I was in college. Because it is not a very favorable comparison, I’ll keep names out of it. The Way, International (led by Victor Paul Wierwille) was a cult that was growing in popularity in the late 1970s. They were based out of Iowa which was just a few hours’ drive away from where I went to school. During one chapel time, the school had a seminar on the teachings of The Way. Part way through the presentation a couple of young men got up (who were not from the school) and said that things were being misrepresented and they wanted to speak. What resulted was a shouting match in which the presenter ordered them to leave the room, said this was a private meeting and that they were trespassing and if they did not leave immediately the police would be called. This incited the two who began to shout back at the presenter. They eventually were escorted out and the meeting ended badly.
I recognize that these were two different situations in two totally different time periods. In the wake of church shootings and such, many churches have security teams. That would have been unheard of in the mid to late 1970s. I think today it is appropriate. But the security people tonight were both visibly present when a situation arose, but also understated in their actions. No one spoke except the minister and the young man whom I presume was Muslim. Guy was very calm, allowed him to share briefly, but was definitely in control of the situation the entire time. He ended the confrontation (if you can call it that) with extended friendship and agreeing with those things that he could agree with in what the young man said, but emphasizing that this was an example of what many Muslim people would say.
A church service is by nature a public meeting and anyone may attend. 35 years ago, the presentation was in the college chapel service, and while visitors are always welcome, it could (I suppose) be said that it was “a private meeting”…although if they had been friendly visitors they would have been totally welcome.
But the speaker back then was immediately confrontational, he escalated the conflict and basically shut off dialog. The meeting ended badly and people (at least I) left with a very bad taste in their mouth. That stands in huge contrast with what happened tonight. The discussions I heard after the service was on the content of what had been presented…little was said about the confrontation at the end other than about how well it was handled.
We live in an increasingly pluralistic age. That means that we must expect people who don’t agree with us to show up at public meetings. Not all will act in (what we would consider) an appropriate manner. There is a balance between keeping control of a meeting and being gracious hosts. Thought and care had been put in place for a security team so that when something happened (both a few months back as well as tonight) key players knew exactly what to do and the spirit to use by which to diffuse the situation.
In the time in which we live, we need to have a well thought through safety plan in churches. There need to be people who know both that they ARE to respond, but also be trained in HOW to respond (and diffuse situations if possible). Those people who are leading from the platform, likewise, need to be trained in how to respond to interruptions by non-friendly attendees.
An interesting night, but one that sparked both remembrance as well as reflection within me.
Does your church have a similar plan? I would love to hear about it if they do.