Saunders: Church the one place all should be welcome

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 8, 2013 

Who’s the first person you call on after you’ve been locked up?

No, I mean before the Get My Butt Outta Here bail bond agency.

That’s right: God.

Trust me. There’s something about hearing that cell door clang shut behind you that turns the rankest sinner into Billy Graham Jr. That’s why every dude who finds himself behind bars turns to God.

Want to hear, though, about a Raleigh man who turned to God first and then found himself behind bars?

Raphael Vargas ended up in the Wake County Jail for several hours Sunday after he wandered into Longview Baptist Church off New Hope Church Road, listened to the Word a bit, then jumped astride his trusty Schwinn and rode away.

Nervous church members who later told Pastor Randy McKinney that Vargas was “acting strange” called Raleigh police, who arrested Vargas and charged him with resisting a public officer and disorderly conduct at a religious service.

Disorderly conduct? In church? Man, at most churches, especially the Baptist ones, the preacher doesn’t feel that he’s done his job unless half the congregation gets disorderly. If it gets too quiet in there, he is liable to thunder “How come y’all ain’t disorderly yet?” and will take that as a challenge, not stopping until every woman, man, child, beast of the field and fish of the sea is doing the Funky Chicken or the Worm, banging the tambourine upside their heads, running up and down the aisle while speaking in tongues.

Maybe that’s the problem, that last one. Josie Gomez, Vargas’ sister, said her brother did speak in what for church members may have been a strange tongue – Spanish – before leaving.

“He said something like ‘Babylonia is coming,’ nothing threatening like he was going to hurt someone,” Gomez said. “My brother didn’t disrupt anything.”

Gomez spoke for her brother because, she said, he really can’t. He is, she said, developmentally challenged. “He can’t make any decisions for himself,” she said. “That’s why our mother had to go to court to get guardianship of him. He’s 22, but he’s pretty much considered a minor in the U.S.”

She said the summoned police car initially passed Vargas but turned around and followed him “quite a ways, all the way to the Walmart on New Bern Avenue. They arrested him inside of Walmart, in front of a bunch of people.”

Gomez, 29, said Vargas did nothing to frighten the church members, “didn’t threaten anyone.”

Maybe not intentionally, but the Rev. McKinney said many of his parishioners were frightened. Because McKinney was facing the pulpit, watching the Youth Day service, he said he only heard the disturbance, “a few words of loud talking and someone leaving the sanctuary.”

He said members told him that as Vargas sat in the back of the church, “he was playing with his hat, acting agitated. It appeared the young man all of a sudden got very agitated and stormed out of the church speaking Spanish or something of that nature. Some members left the sanctuary to go see what was taking place.

“They saw him riding off on his bicycle, and one of the church members called the police. He wasn’t sure if this young man was a danger to someone, was a danger to himself ... I spoke with parishioners as they were leaving the church and some were frightened because of what happened in the sense that he just stood up and started speaking and left the church.

“Understanding what’s taking place with shootings in schools and churches and things of that nature – there’s a fear, for sure,” the Rev. McKinney acknowledged.

Gomez said she understands that fear, “but they should’ve been able to see there was clearly something wrong with him. My mother asked, ‘If they couldn’t understand what he was saying, why would they feel threatened?’ ”

Hmm. Good question. In addition to spooking them by speaking Spanish, Vargas’ appearance also may have unnerved church members. Gomez said her brother “has dark, dark skin and his hair is curly, kind of like that boy in Boston.”

That boy in Boston is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who, along with his dead brother, Tamerlan, is suspected of setting off those bombs at the Boston Marathon and killing a police officer.

“I was always under the impression that churches were always open to everybody,” Gomez said. “I didn’t know you had to, like, be a member” to worship.

Amen, sister. The next time the choir at Longview Baptist or any other church sings “Come unto me all ye who are weary,” let’s hope they actually heed the words. The second line of that hymn is not “As long as you look like me and speak the same language.”

No one should condemn the church members for being nervous, and not just because of what “that boy in Boston” allegedly did. If you condemn them for anything, it should be for not reaching out to a troubled young man who wandered into the one place all should be welcomed.

I asked Josie Gomez if her brother told her why he strolled into Longview. Did the Holy Spirit guide him there, or was it the soothing sounds of the youth choir seeping out of the windows?

No, she said. “He had gone there with my mother once and liked it.”

Tell Barry what you think at or 919-836-2811.

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