By Susan Fawcett
For good or ill, the parish I serve is becoming skilled in a particular kind of hospitality: high-profile funerals. A few years ago, before I began working here, the parish opened its doors to hold a funeral for a young woman whose kidnap and brutal murder got top billing on every major news network. With television-news trucks, reporters, and cameras swarming the perimeter, a church that seats 350 on a good day welcomed swarms of people who came to mourn an untimely (and much publicized) death. I doubt the parish realized how that funeral was preparing them for another.
The recent tragedy at Virginia Tech hit hard four hours away in Northern Virginia. Many of our parishioners had only one or two degrees of separation from the victims. And indeed, one young woman who died was from our town. She was a vibrant young woman, a student who was only weeks away from graduating. Through various connections—a family friend who also happened to be an Episcopal priest, and neighbors who comforted them in the first hours after they got the awful news—her family was led to our parish, and the rector offered to officiate at the service.
In the days that followed, it became clear that this would be no ‘normal’ funeral. Significant crowds were expected, various protesters [http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/04/18/national/main2699800.shtml] threatened to picket, and the press was already on patrol. In a Sunday sermon, the rector asked for volunteers to help with the preparations, and by Tuesday so many calls came in that we had to start turning people away. By the afternoon before the service, there were more cookies and brownies in our parish hall than you could have fed to an army of middle-schoolers. The ‘simple reception’ we had offered began to turn into a luncheon as people brought sandwiches, cheese, meat trays, crackers, and finger foods, so much that it barely fit in the parish kitchen. We turned away offers from local restaurants to cater the event, because there was simply no more room for food.
There was no lack of human help, either. Volunteers swarmed the church for two full days, coordinating the offerings of food, the arrangement of extra chairs, setting up a tent for overflow seating, checking the sound system, preparing for the police, rescue, and press corps. Parishioners in orange vests arranged the parking on our front lawn, and parishioners in suits served as ushers. We were ready, or as ready as we were going to be.
And the people came. Over a thousand of them, including several buses full of students from Virginia Tech. They found their seats. The funeral unfolded, the way liturgies do, and it was both poignant and beautiful.
The parish provided this family a fine funeral.
That is not my point.
My point is that after the funeral, when most of the attendees had spoken to the family and had eaten and had done what people do after funerals (which is often strangely similar to what people do at family reunions), I saw parishioners still working. They packed up boxes of leftover brownies to send with the college students. They sent leftover bottled water and sandwiches and cookies to a local soup kitchen. They put away the chairs and picked up dropped bulletins. A young man vacuumed the sanctuary. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary; the same kinds of things that happen after any Sunday morning or parish supper. Just bigger, and more.
Being the church for a family that had none, assuaging our own grief and fear with the liturgies and rituals we’ve done over and over again: these people were not making heroic efforts. They did what they do every week, every month, in the regular routine of being a church. And yet the effect of their work was overwhelming, an incredible statement of compassion and hospitality to our grieving neighbors.
This is where God shows up, people. This is the church at its best. At this funeral, no one debated about sex or property disputes. At this funeral, I’m guessing that none of the parishioners, nor any of the family members of the deceased, would have cared whether or not the Anglican Communion existed as a formal structure or as a network of relationships. At this funeral, this parish was God’s people, the body of Christ: the Church.
Thanks be to God.
The Reverend Susan Daughtry Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish in the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.
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