I have been really conflicted over the past day over the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, KS. Because I lived for four years in the greater Wichita area (1983-1987) and drove by his abortion clinic more times than I can count, I am aware of what went on in that brick building. Tiller ran one of only three abortion clinics in the nation that will perform “late term” abortions.
Following our move from Wichita to Garden City, KS, Dr. Tiller was always in the news throughout the state. Part of that was his own self-promotion, but most of it was the hatred of pro-lifers and anti-abortionists of all stripes. (I differentiate the two, because not all anti-abortionists are pro-life, as yesterday’s murder shows). This is not the first time Dr. Tiller has been shot by self-appointed vigilantes.
In 1991, Dr. Tiller’s clinic became the focus of “The Summer of Mercy” protests. In April Tiller had sent an advertisement to doctors all over the nation promoting his “late-term abortions.” Operation Rescue showed up and the non-violent “Summer of Mercy” extended from July into August 1991. Tens of thousands showed up at Tiller’s clinic and at two others to sing and to pray. A smaller number chose to blockade the clinics. On one occasion 80 pastors were arrested for blockading one of the facilities. Numerous of my friends and ministers I respect greatly were arrested. I seriously debated about driving the four hours from Garden City to Wichita to participate, but did not.
Despite the continuing opposition, Tiller has continued his work, until yesterday when Scott Roeder, a divorced loner from the Kansas City area allegedly shot and killed Tiller as he handed out bulletins at his church, Reformation Lutheran Church in east Wichita. Tiller’s wife was in the choir in a back room getting ready to come on and sing. Someone had to come and summon her to where her husband lay dying.
My thoughts today are not really so much about Dr. Tiller’s clinic or the Summer of Mercy, but about his murder in the foyer of his church. I was visiting with my parents-in-law’s minister today at the Kansas City hospital where my father-in-law is hospitalized with terminal, inoperable brain cancer. And both of us thought soberly about what our reaction might be if a controversial church member of ours were to be slain in the foyer as they volunteered for the church.
The shock, the communal grief, the sense of violation that so many of one’s church members would feel overwhelms the pastoral resources of any minister. While I cannot understand a church welcoming Dr. Tiller as a member without any kind of church discipline for his actions, I still have great empathy for Lowell Michelson and Kristin Neitzel, pastors of the church. Their world has been turned upside down. (Of course, not as much as Dr. Tiller’s family, or many of the families of the infants whose life Dr. Tiller took). Everything from cleaning up the foyer which is a crime scene (which makes clean up problematic for some time), to dealing with media requests, to working with grieving families, from the Tiller family on down, to preparing for a funeral at which every word will be weighed and analyzed and potentially put on national news, to every member who replays where they were and what they were doing when the shot rang out. The other ushers, I am sure, keep replaying, “Could I have prevented this?” The questions about what type of security the church had (or should have had?) in place. The church members who now will not return to Reformation Lutheran, not because they have anything against the body of believers, but because they emotionally cannot step into the foyer where the murder of one of their fellow parishioners happened. The pastors Michelson & Neitzel must be dealing with all of that that and more.
On the Reformation Lutheran Church homepage, they have put this statement:
The Reformation Lutheran Church family is shocked and deeply saddened by the violent murder of Dr. George Tiller, a longtime member of our congregation, that occurred in our church home May 31.
Our congregation strives to be a safe place for all people. We deplore the violence that took place within the walls of our church. Further, we reject any notion that violence against another human being is an acceptable way to resolve differences over any issue. We must always strive to engage in peaceful discussion. Our faith calls us to this. Our humanity demands it.
In the wake of this tragic event, our deepest concern is for the family of George Tiller. We ask the community to join us in prayer for them as they face the difficult days ahead. Our hearts ache with them. We also ask that the family’s privacy be respected.
Members of Reformation Lutheran Church have been deeply affected by this tragedy. To address their needs, we are assembling a team of crisis intervention specialists.
In this time of uncertainty, we stand firm in the promises of Jesus Christ: forgiveness, hope, love, and new life, even from death. We pray for healing and peace to be restored. We offer our thanks for the many prayers of support from across the country. Your words of encouragement are a blessing to the people of Reformation Lutheran Church and Wichita.
The Rev. Lowell Michelson
The Rev. Kristin Neitzel
Reformation Lutheran Church
There are numerous ministers (Paducah, Kentucky and Littleton Colorado come immediately to mind) who have had tragedy strike their congregations. But it is a separate matter to have the violence happen in the church building itself. I am not sure that even the shooting that happened in Colorado Springs at New Life Church a couple of years back are comparable.
The actions and words in this statement are good. I am sure that much, much more must and is being done.
While I abhor what Dr. Tiller did and stood for, the self-appointed vigilante-type of violence seen yesterday is unjustified and must be condemned. Two years ago Roeder had posted on an Operation Rescue message board: “Tiller is the concentration camp ‘Mengele’ of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgment upon our nation.”
Even in the Old Testament where an eye for an eye was technically the law, a stranger who was unaffected by the offense had no right to step in and take the law into his /her own hands. Even the government could not execute without a formal process and trial with witnesses. And while I cannot understand the type of church that would welcome someone like this as an active member, my heart still goes out to Revs. Michelson & Neitzel. The ministry that they now are called upon to perform in the face of tragedy will be overwhelming. The sermon that one or the other of them preach next Sunday will probably be the hardest sermon of their careers. My prayers are with them.