Saunders: Readers suggest visits to higher - and lower - ground

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 12, 2013 

Wow, that was a new type of invitation.

Naw, not that a reader told me to go to hell – as hard as that is to believe, it’s happened a time or two – but that he also invited me to his church afterwards.

That dear reader, like so many others, accused your humble serpent – I mean servant – of being in league with the devil for reporting on the story of Raphael Vargas, a mentally challenged man who was arrested for disorderly conduct in a church last week.

There were many invitations to church from Christians who seem genuinely concerned for my soul, but that was the only one that also told me where else to go.

Scores of you came down hard on me for “condemning” Longview Baptist Church, which I never did. I merely suggested that I wished someone in the church had extended the right hand of fellowship to Vargas before calling the law on him.

I also reported that the pastor, the Rev. Randy McKinney, said members called the police after Vargas left the church because they were afraid he might be a danger to someone else or to himself.

Others were more upset – “fuming,” one member of Longview wrote – that I said some churches have colorful worship services. “How DARE you say that the Baptist are so loud in church, and that they do the funky chicken, beat tambourines on their head and speak in tongues. The Baptists, I’ll have you to know, are the most orderly, quiet and reverent people of all.

In the church’s defense

“In our church, Longview Baptist, we have blacks, Mexicans, orientals and any other people that want to come there to worship... (Y)ou can hear a pin drop in there while Pastor Randy is giving his sermon. Does that sound like what you described?”

No, but who wants to hear a pin drop in church? Some may, but I love the give-and-take, the call-and-response, of the preacher and the congregation interacting with each other, and I love the little old ladies who can barely walk into church getting filled with the Holy Spirit and suddenly being able to run, jump, dance and shout – in other words, to make a joyful noise.

A reader who doesn’t feel likewise wrote, “I fully expected you to attack the Christian church ... Christians are under attack all around the globe, and you have extended that persecution right here in Raleigh. The majority of Baptists worship in a very reverent service, and do not run up and down the aisles in a demon-possessed manner ... Only Jesus will be able to forgive you for all of the hack columns you’ve written throughout your life ... It is very difficult, if not impossible, to see any signs of Christian love in your columns.”

Gee, Bill. That’s disappointing, since I actually went to Bible college for a week when I thought I’d been called to be a preacher. My pastor, the Rev. Tyrone Gilchrist, sagely suggested that I wait, though: Good thing, too, since it turned out that the voice I thought I heard calling me to preach was not from whom I thought it was.

The Rev. McKinney, when I spoke to him, said he was unaware that Vargas’ arrest was for anything he supposedly did in the church. “It was my understanding that he was arrested for his actions in Walmart,” where police apprehended him, he told me. The police report, though, definitely said he was arrested for “disorderly conduct at a religious service.”

I feel your paranoia

Those readers who weren’t lambasting me lambasted the church – unfairly – for being paranoid. McKinney stated that some members of his congregation were indeed frightened by Vargas’ behavior, and cited recent shootings and bombings. (Some said that Vargas seemed agitated, was playing with his hat and fidgeting and spoke loudly as he left the church.)

One member of the church, decrying my “NASTY” column, wrote to tell me that she thought he was reaching for a gun when he stood and unzipped his jacket.

Oy. Last week I began reading, four decades after my 10th grade English teacher Mrs. Martin told me to, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller. A character in the book states, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”

Face it. Recent violent incidents have many Americans feeling that someone is after them, causing them to stay home, peer behind them and under seats before sitting down.

Speaking of seat-peering paranoia, my buddy Tony, who is now a respected pastor and can verify this story, and I once saw an Atlanta unemployment office cleared out in seconds because some guy left a brown paper bag under a seat. We were teenagers and had run away from home seeking either adventure or to get away from the law for some peccadillo.

While waiting to see if we were qualified to do anything, we noticed there was a rush to the door after someone spotted the bag and concluded out loud that the man who’d left it might be “a communist spy.”

Someone else mentioned “all that stuff going on in Russia with that Bradshaw.” He meant Leonid Brezhnev, the Russian president, but why quibble when lives are at stake?

We were allowed back in after it was determined that the crinkled up bag contained nothing more lethal than a pair of old shoes.

Our national paranoia goes back even further than that, of course: Another reader told me of a downtown Raleigh “fallout shelter” sign, a Cold War remnant from when it was feared that the Soviet Union would destroy us and we them. Schoolchildren were taught during that period to survive a nuclear attack by bending over at their desks, placing their heads between their legs and – gee, I don’t know what came next, since I was laughing so hard when I read that.

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