It was about 6:30am on Sunday morning. I was in my pj’s, in my comfy chair, drinking coffee and going over my sermon. Sunday mornings were a quiet, relaxing time until about 8:30am when I would walk the few blocks to the church to greet our homeless guests who were at the church for breakfast and the volunteers who made it happen, and then prepare for worship. Living in the heart of the city, I didn’t have a car as everything I needed was within walking distance.
The sun painted the awakening sky with a canvas of color. And then my phone rang. Our head trustee, a regular breakfast volunteer. Not a good sign. I got the words “Hi Tr….” before he cut me off.
“Someone’s been shot. Ambulance on the way. Wait, wait…..something is happening! I’ll call you back.”
I threw on jeans and sneakers and was out the door in a panic, and literally ran the entire way to the church. I arrived to see the ambulance leaving, police tape surrounding our parking lot, the possessions of our homeless guests scattered everywhere, and police taking statements.
The trustee who had called saw me running up and came to explain.
Apparently a drug deal had gone bad a few blocks away and a young man had been shot in the shoulder. He ran from the scene, saw people in our parking lot and thought he could hide in the crowd. Everyone heard the shots fired and when a volunteer saw the bleeding man run up, she called 911 and one of our homeless guests went to get more volunteers from the Fellowship Hall where breakfast was being set up.
The head trustee was the first one outside and asked the young man if he needed help.
“No, man, I’m cool” he replied as he seemed to be trying to Shake Off A Gunshot Wound.
He was taken to the hospital for treatment and would be fine. But we had a bigger problem. Our church was a crime scene and we had about 150 homeless people needing the breakfast that was behind the crime scene tape. Matthew 26: 11 and Mark 14: 7 both tell of Jesus telling the disciples that the poor will always be with us. So we’d better find ways to make them a priority when shit hits the fan.
The police were sympathetic to our cause. They knew what we did each week and that we ran a responsible and safe program, never hesitating to call for help when we deemed a situation beyond our abilities (which when working with populations with high levels of mental illness and substance abuse would happen). They released the far end of the building to us and we were able to funnel our guests through the building, down the stairs and into the Fellowship Hall. This took some extra volunteers and many of our frequent guests jumped in to help.
Once we got the food going again and our new plan put into action, I went downstairs to talk to our guests. From atop a chair, I thanked our guests for being patient while the police worked and while we got the meal warmed back up and put out. Their response caught me a little off guard. They thanked us for not canceling the breakfast and expressed surprise that in the midst of the chaos, we were concerned for them. They asked about the man who had been shot, and together we prayed for his healing and gave thanks for the police in protecting us all.
Many of our guests had left their belongings in the parking where we served coffee and donuts while breakfast was being prepared. It was all technically evidence in a crime scene. To be away from their belongings was stress inducing for our guests; for many it was all their worldly possessions. The police said it could be hours before the scene was fully released back to us, which didn't work for us for many reasons, most importantly that our guests were not going to leave without their possessions which meant they would miss the next free meal. We didn’t have the resources to provide lunch for everyone too.
So with a police escort, one by one I brought our guests to the parking lot, they identified their belongings (which we confirmed by having them describe something unique inside them), the officers checked them for evidence (blood spatters mostly) and then released the items. This took over an hour, after which I ran back home (literally), showered, dressed, printed my sermon, and walked quickly back to start church.
You truly never know what a day will bring. When a crisis hits, you have to think fast and trust your instincts. Try to smile and be calm. If you are panicked and flustered, your leadership (formal or informal) will be too. If you are upset, their instinct will be to protect and comfort you, but you need your leadership attentive to the problem, not to you.
As the hours and days move forward, don't pretend a crisis didn't happen. We talked about it in worship, prayed for all involved, and I addressed it in my sermon. You can spend 20 hours crafting your sermon (which you should) and then something will happen Sunday morning or earlier to make it irrelevant. And how can worship be relevant if your sermon is not?