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Commentary on Va. Tech: For such a time as this

EDITOR'S NOTE: This message was delivered to staff members of the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference on April 17 during a prayer service one day after a shooting spree on the campus of Virginia Tech University left 33 people dead, including the gunman.

A UMNS Commentary
By Angie Williams*

April 18, 2007 | BLACKSBURG, Va. (UMNS)

Angie Williams

“For such a time as this” – So, what is this time?

This is a time when we, the leaders of the church, need to discuss the deeper issues that lay the foundation for such atrocities as the massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech -- and the implications for our response as the body of Christ.

This is a time when…

  • A record number of students were killed in a college campus shooting;
  • The number of teens in foster care has increased by more than 200,000 in the last 20 years;
  • About 6 million children under age 12 have been diagnosed with depression and are on medication for it;
  • Urban youth swarm the streets because Daddy has abandoned them and Mama’s strung out on crack;
  • Minority youth are trapped by oppressive political and economic systems that have rendered them victims of degradation;
  • 1 in 12 young people are the victims of violent crime;
  • Substance abuse among young adults has increased as much as 10 percent in the last decade;
  • Technology and acquaintances on My Space masquerade for true intimacy and significant relationships;
  • There is a considerable rise in young people who suffer from emotional disturbances manifested through eating disorders, self-mutilation and violence.

And, this is also a time when, for the most part, the institutional church with its traditional families wants nothing to do with "that" kid who abuses substances; or who dresses inappropriately; or who uses obscene street language and grooves to rap and hip-hop; or who has two mommies or daddies; or who is promiscuous or pregnant; or who is emotionally disturbed and anti-social; or who has darker skin or an accent; or who wears all black or metal or chains or piercings, tattoos or "bling bling"; or who isn’t familiar with the most basic of Bible stories.

"This is a time, for the most part, when the institutional church is completely out of touch with the cultures of today's young people..."

The church stays away from "those" kids, lest they negatively influence the churched kids.

Neglecting 'those' kids

This is a time, for the most part, when we Christians spend the majority of our time building the church and very little time building God’s kingdom on earth. A time when the church has sold out and is more concerned with its own self-preservation than with the needs of the least, the last and the lost. A time when urban centers are surrounded by churches that refuse to reach out to the impoverished, drug-infested, subsidized residents.

This is a time when research has proven the primary impact of a significant adult relationship other than a parent in determining the success and positive adjustment of at-risk young people, and yet very few churches engage the youth of their communities in mentoring programs.

This is a time, for the most part, when the institutional church is completely out of touch with the cultures of today’s young people and has absolutely no clue how to reach the marginalized, disenfranchised, at-risk populations of young people.

And I only wish I was exaggerating.

Just in the 12 years of career experience that I have had in my young life, I’ve been there. I have served "that" church – the church that kicked out the kid who was caught selling drugs in youth group; the church that told the emotionally disturbed kid that he couldn’t come back to youth group unless a parent accompanied him; the church that outcast an unmarried young adult when she became pregnant; the church that literally closed its doors on a group of youth who wanted to share an alternative style of worship; the church that stared down the youth who was dressed creatively; and the church that refused to let the young visitor sit in a family-designated pew.

'Be the hope'

I realize that many of you were probably expecting more of a message of hope this morning, not words of seemingly negative chastisement. However, in this room sit THE leaders of the United Methodist Church of Virginia. And as leaders, what we need most is not a message of hope but a wakeup call that reminds us of our mission to BE the hope.

"(When) the church feels like it has done its part to comfort families who have lost loved ones … will we forget that this crisis didn't begin at Virginia Tech and it still hasn't ended?"

Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t blame the church or anyone or anything else for the actions of the Virginia Tech shooter. I remember hearing a professor speak shortly after the Columbine shootings. Likewise, he did not place the blame on the failures of an institution, the parents, the media, violent video games or any other entity.

However, he did speak of the deep responsibility that should be owned by educators in acknowledging their role as mentors who have at least the possible capability to stop such atrocities through successful intervention and outreach to high-risk students.

He suggested that more often than not, educators simply pretend not to see these students and ignore their cries for help.

This professor’s words to educators ring true for the church. We can no longer sit complacent in our pews, but must answer the call for such a time as this.

The greatest tragedy is that we respond in such a time as this in the midst of an isolated incident of crisis while we pretend not to see the crises that constantly surround us on a daily basis. When the upcoming months have gone by and the church feels like it has done its part to comfort families who have lost loved ones and lead them toward a path of the peace and forgiveness of Christ, will we forget that this crisis didn’t begin at Virginia Tech and it still hasn’t ended?

Or, will we finally realize that, “for such a time as this,” the church must finally begin the active pursuit of intimate and significant mentoring relationships with ALL young people within AND BEYOND our church walls, just as God ceaselessly pursues us.

For such a time as this is our call to finally wake up to the cries of marginalized, disenfranchised, at-risk young people who desperately need the church to show them a God and a love that is big enough for even them. For such a time as this…

*Williams is director of youth, young adult, and single adult ministries of the Virginia Annual Conference. Her message to the conference staff was based on Isaiah 40:27-31 and Esther 4:6-14.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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