Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This is the reprint of an article that appeared in The Wittenberg Door (September/October 2007), Alive Now! and on the General Board of Discipleship website, and a sequel to yesterday’s, The Church in the Plastic Bubble.  Since I wrote the original article, I discovered that this AUT_0171is not an aberration, but an industry.  People-proofing churches (from “those” people) has become popular sport in our Christian culture.  Additionally, I’ve encountered church ushers trained in martial arts, fire arms, and anti-terrorist protocols.  Some churches now hire armed guards.  Sales of security systems to churches increase, even in a tough economy.  For me, it raises some serious questions about what we have let the church become, but here is the early encounter I entitled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

(The following is a somewhat surreal conversation I had with a woman who struck up a conversation with me in a Madison, Wisconsin coffee shop.  Her quotes were captured on my nifty little digital recorder, and are shared verbatim.  This is an op-ed piece – a reaction to what may be a disturbing trend in our church world in the 21st century.  It is intended as a think piece, and I am very interested in your views – maybe I am over-reacting…)

logoIs the world becoming a more or less hostile place?  Who ‘belongs’ to a community and who doesn’t?  Are the poor and marginalized our brothers and sisters for whom we have responsibility or are they merely a problem to be solved?  There are no simple answers to these questions, but for Christians it is assumed that they are easy questions to answer.  The world is a broken place with all kinds of problems and the church exists to address problems, but to include all people (especially the poor and marginalized) as part of the solution.  We have a responsibility to all God’s people, no matter who they are or where they live or what their life circumstances are… right?  And we want nothing more than to create congregational environments that personify the highest ideals of “open hearts, open minds, open doors”… are we on the same page?

Tell all this to some churches in the Chicago area who have hired an architect to “beautify by securing” their church campuses.

I met a young, intense, fast-talking, energetic, in-demand architect from Chicago, at a Victor Allen’s coffee shop.  She is currently working for fifteen different churches to “make sure that people who don’t belong, don’t try to take advantage of the church.”  Without any apparent cognitive dissonance, my new friend joyfully shared her plans to “keep churches safe, secure, and visually appealing.”

barbed wire crossSome of her plans for church properties include “wall- and post-mounted sprinkler heads that fire in two minute bursts five times an hour to prevent loiterers from cluttering the garden spots.”  Also, “sloped grass areas to discourage sitting, fake surveillance cameras – you know, shells – to make people think they’re being watched, and angled entryways to make them uncomfortable for any purpose other than entry and exit.  There is nothing scarier than showing up to church and finding some homeless guy asleep on your doorstep…”  Additionally, she happily shared that research shows that “an eighty-eight degree angle provides the least comfortable decorative bench-back,” ensuring that people will not sit for long periods of time.  And, “if you use a wide, inverse waffle pattern on the seat – like a cheese-grater — it makes sleeping all but impossible.”

The conversation shifted from the troubling to the macabre as we discussed trashcans, motion sensors, and water fountains.  This young woman owns the patent on a plastic trashcan that easily receives waste, but “is specially hardened and sharpened so that anyone trying to remove garbage from the top will receive a painful cut.  This discourages the ‘dumpster divers’ (translated ‘hungry people’) that are literally everywhere these days…  Not only do our motion sensors activate lights, but they electrify fences and doorknobs as well.  And one of the things I am proudest of is the sensor-activated water fountain – if you don’t have a church fob on your key ring, you can’t get a drink.  We’re looking into a parking security gate similar to the One Pass system – when you join the church you get a box for your windshield that lets you in the parking lot.”

I raised a question concerning such extreme measures to discourage people from using church property – “Aren’t you concerned about law suits?”  With a twinkle in her eye, the architect confided, “These people are outside the system.  They don’t have the money or other resources for legal action.  It could be a real problem if we inflicted serious injury, but we don’t.  Why hurt someone if you can get the result you want by irritating them?”

testimonylogolite“I am getting so much work from churches these days, especially in the suburbs.  The city is full – there are too many people on the streets, so they are looking outside the city for food and shelter.  Churches can’t cope, the church people don’t want them there, and they are tearing everything up.  Though I am not an active Christian, I kind of see this as my ministry – to keep undesirables out of the churches.”

This architect’s attitudes might be excused (or at least forgiven), but what is most troubling is that churches are hiring her services.  Granted, churches want to create safe, healthy, and secure environments, but the steps the architect described go far beyond the creation of a safe environment.  When we not only close our doors, but we take steps to punish, hurt, and deny comfort to those who most need welcome, it calls into question our very reason for being and what it really means to be the church.

6 replies

  1. I’m sorry, but this really borders on D.D.I.A.J.

    The website for Church Security Solutions (which is based in Oregon, by the way) doesn’t talk about modifying the church to keep “them” out. Maybe the woman does work for them but it wouldn’t appear to be the case from the website. If not, then you are promoting guilt by association.

    Unfortunately, there are people who think it is okay to bring a gun to church. There are even those who think that they are carrying out God’s judgement if they shoot someone outside of church. There are people who think they are exerting their “rights” when they refuse to take needed medications for their anti-social disorders, but do not want to be held responsible for the harm that may befall others.

    There may be churches that are using this lady’s architectural “ideas.” I would hope that none are United Methodist. But, pretending that we do not need to make church a safe environment for those who enter is simply foolish.

    • Creed, I never said we shouldn’t take precautions. Keep me in context. What I have said is basically threefold:
      1. there is no long-term benefit in promoting an “us/them” mentality that excuses us from action
      2. there is no justification for intentionally hurting people we’re afraid of
      3. church fortification is only one option, and for churches actively transforming the world, not a good one

      But many well-meaning Christians will continue to defend further separation between the safety and security of the church from the brokeness of the world. It was ever thus, and evermore shall be.

      • Just a note from a UM in Seattle:

        “There is a big difference between taking precautions and renouncing the faith. My husband and I left our church of fifteen years when we watched two “trained” security people pull a young man out of the sanctuary and hold him in our crying room, both men questioning him, and one unsnapping the holster of his sidearm. They let him go, and he literally ran away from our church. My husband asked what the problem was, and one of our “trained” guards said, “He looked like he might be Middle Eastern, so we just wanted to be careful. Too many people in the church confuse being careful with being paranoid and adopting our cultures fear values instead of our Christian faith values. Don’t kid yourself — these companies set up to “secure” churches are exploiting our fears.”

  2. I hope this article was from the Wittenburg Door that is actually a magazine of Christian satire. It is The Onion for Christians.

    http://www.wittenburgdoor.com

    I too have seen and heard congregations’ efforts to say “welcome” while holding people at arms length, but I think the original intent of this article was to use satire to open our eyes to how ridiculous those efforts are.

    • Cindy, I wish it were satire. The Door also focuses on things so ridiculous that they can only be real. Unfortunately, that’s where this story falls. Personally, I can’t find anything funny about it…

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