We were standing in the last pew in church today. Being six and a half feet tall and having two kids under the age of seven automatically qualifies me and my family for seating in the rear. I stood there this morning with a heavy heart, thinking about the four young men that died yesterday in Epworth. And judging by the amount of people around me, I wasn’t alone. The church was packed. Families were standing along the back wall and were crammed into the small space upstairs.
A retired priest was called 30 minutes before the mass to pinch hit. I can only imagine what the last 24 hours must have looked like for Father Schueller. It made sense that he needed help this morning. I think we were all there looking for some help; seeking guidance in this very difficult time. We were told to pray and to be present. I stood there struggling with those instructions. Of course I’m going to pray, I thought. But that didn’t feel like it was enough.
I caught myself looking around for a bit. I wondered what others were thinking and how they felt about what had happened. How were they coping with this tragedy? Then I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. People were standing really close to each other. At first I assumed it was because we had more people in attendance, but after looking around some more, I was wrong. It was if people were holding onto each other. Just as I was making sense of what was going on, we were about ready to give each other the sign of peace. This is always the moment that I quickly scan my surroundings and determine where I’m going to offer my first handshake. It’s a good way to eliminate the possibility of a false start handshake or even worse, offering to shake someone’s hand and have it get denied. I like to try to make a little eye contact with the first person to make sure we are a go and then spread the love from there.
Before I could complete my assessment, the guy standing to my right leaned into me and gave me one of those handshakes that include the other arm holding my elbow. He locked eyes with me and said “peace be with you” in a way that made me believe he really meant it. I shook Isaac’s hand, gave Lila a high-five and then looked up to find a woman in the pew in front of me leaning toward me for a hug. She patted my back while we embraced. During the average sign of peace ceremony, I probably average five handshakes. This morning I hit a PR of 11. (counting the high-five)
People were standing on top of each other not because we had exceeded the fire code, but because we were yearning for connection and support from one another. And it didn’t matter who it came from. At that moment, it made no difference if the guy in the pew next to me was white, black or yellow. He could have been a Bobcat, Blazer or a Mustang. It didn’t matter. He could have been the farmer that just got done doing chores or the retired teacher. None of that was noticed.
Father’s opening remarks came back to me. “Pray and be present.” After 60 years of delivering sermons, it was evident he knew a thing or two about navigating times like these. We need to pray for the families and not just be present for them, but for each other as well. They need our entire community right now.