Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story previously appeared in The Narthex. We are thankful for that publication’s permission to share the piece here.
The Rev. Thomas Broad and wardens of Grace Episcopal Church in the rural hamlet of Randolph, New York engaged in a remarkable act of social media ministry one Sunday morning a while back.
I learned about this on Facebook, when the above photo was posted on the church’s page. But the congregation’s digital post was not the act of social media ministry to which I refer. Rather, I’m talking about the small parish’s decision to recognize the church building itself as a communication medium—as a space in which to grow as a community in God’s love, as the media and religion scholar Mary E. Hess puts it.
The tag on the side of Grace Church, it turns out, is a lyric from a powerful, disturbing, and spiritually freighted song, “King Park,” by the punk band La Dispute. The song deals with the shooting death of a teen caught in a drive-by shooting in the King Park neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Michigan and the subsequent suicide of one of the suspected shooters as police closed in on him where he was holed up in a local hotel.
A postmodern dream vision, the song imagines the initial murder, the response by the community and police, and the theological question that animated the last moments of the shooter’s life. It is a meditation on violence, death, sin, and the hope for forgiveness, with lyricist Jordan Dreyer’s narrator entering the dreamscape with a desire to capture the deeper meaning of the tragedy:
I want to write it all down so I can always remember. If you could see it up close how could you ever forget how senseless death, how precious life. I want to be there when the bullet hit.
As the dream draws to the end of the episode, the narrator listens in on a final conversation between the shooter and his uncle:
I heard them trying to reason, get him to open the door. His uncle begging and pleading, half-collapsed to the floor. He preached of hope and forgiveness, and said, “There is always a chance to rectify what you’ve taken, make your peace in the world.” I thought to slip through the door, I could’ve entered the room, I felt the burden of murder, it shook the earth to the core. Felt like the world was collapsing. Then we heard him speak, “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself? Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself? Can I ever be forgiven cuz I killed that kid?”
None of this background was known to Broad or other members of the Grace Church community when “Can I still get to heaven if I kill myself” appeared in two-foot letters on the side of their modest, Victorian church. (Father Tom later googled the phrase and found his way to the video and lyrics of the song.) Grace was among a number of buildings tagged in the area, and the initial response in the town of 2600 whose closest “big city” neighbor is Erie, Pennsylvania, a hour and change away, was dismay.
But events across the country over the past two summers since the church was tagged have made us all more accustomed to the ways local architecture can serve as a palate for hopelessness, frustration, and rage. That the tagger found his way to local churches surely seemed especially troubling to residents at the time, but it turns out that grace defined much of the experience, well beyond being the name of one of the affected churches.
For rather than approaching the tagging as a criminal act, leaders at Grace Church decided to take the graffiti seriously as an expression of something spiritually meaningful—a cry for help, perhaps; even a mocking expression of religious skepticism. They approached it relationally, using the church building itself as a social media platform, and responding with their own message of hope:
“Like in many small, rural communities, teenagers in the area often struggle with nothing to do, with drinking, and so on,” said Father Tom of the likely culprits. “Some of the tagging was truly malicious,” he added. “The doors of the Roman Catholic church down the road were sprayed with ‘Satan’s House.’ Still, we wanted to respond as someone who cares, as someone who listens, even when the forum for conversation isn’t exactly conventional.”
The After School Special version of the story would, I suppose, have the responsible wayward youth come forward to confess: “Ah, Fadder,” a shamefaced ruffian would mutter, eyes to the ground, “we was just blowing off steam.” An earnest conversion would follow. Cue music. Clergy who encounter the story will certainly have much sermon fodder along those lines for the coming week.
And, it turns out that something like that did happen. As the story made its way through local and, eventually, national news reports, the parents of the tagger—a teenaged boy suffering from chronic depression—did, in fact, bring him to the church to account for the vandalism. Healing continued for all concerned.
But there’s another story here, too. In this second narrative, a small church located in a world of changing (and arguably declining) religion recognized that the main currents of religious and spiritual meaning-making flow outside its doors. Beyond the clapboard walls of a village church, Father Tom and his community realized, lies a place where people don’t necessarily move between belief and unbelief. Indeed, in that space, beliefs really aren’t much the point. Meaning-making isn’t the point. Lived experience is. Feeling is. Relationship is.
“The senses themselves do not necessarily require meanings. . . . It is possible for someone to encounter something unpredictably that transforms her, to be gripped through her senses by a force (whether immanent or transcendent) without having to interpret anything,” the anthropologist Talal Asad reminds us.
This is the classic stuff of Christian mysticism, but it is hardly the norm of institutional Christianity. Still, such encounters are at the center of what I have come to think of as the basic character of American religion today—a liminal religion that lives in experiential margins between conventional religious practice and the strident apologetics of neo-atheism. In this liminal religious landscape, the words of a relatively obscure punk band wend their way from Grand Rapids, Michigan via YouTube or Pandora or Slacker to a church wall in Western New York, while the forty or so diehard worshippers at Grace Episcopal (fewer than half of whom, according to Broad, use any electronic communication) sleep perhaps a bit too soundly through the night.
The promise of conversion in this story, then, isn’t so much about the troubled kid with a can of spray paint and a swirl of demons in his head. Rather, it has to do with a church waking up to a bigger world and a more complex and challenging religiosity . . . and then responding to the expansion with, dare we say, a measure of grace that speaks not merely to angst-ridden teenage taggers, a small parish community, or a rural town, but also to the blur of cars along the highway outside the church—their drivers waving and honking as they pass by, read the tags, and head down the road—as well as to the clicks of all the digital believers, seekers, and skeptics who shared the story across social media in the hours, days, and weeks after it appeared.
“I think people in our parishes sometimes think there’s Grace Church in Randolph, the Holy Land on the other side of the world,” said Father Tom, “and nothing in between. This experience has opened us to all kinds of new questions in the local community and the wider world about how people become disenchanted with the church, about how they deal with their problems. We can’t help but pay attention.”
When I first wrote about this event at Grace Church, the church was due to be repainted over the summer. The tag lingered for a few more weeks, inviting deeper reflection within and beyond the parish about its mission and ministry in a changing world. Eventually, the tag was sanded off and the church was restored to its traditional colors. “God still loves everyone with no exceptions,” Father Tom wrote on the church’s Facebook page.
A few months later, fire seriously damaged the church. Again, Grace Church rebuilt, restored, and continued to reach into the liminal religious world outside its doors. Whatever happens, Father Tom said, “it’s always about letting go of perceived limitations holding us back, and then leaping forward in faith.”
At the end of the day, living in the world of liminal religion is always about opening the doors, serving all the people. No exceptions.