Suspicious Person Reported at Keene, NH Church

“Those Raw Church Welcomes”…  Or…  “Oh, That’s Just Scott!”

"Shower Head" by Mike Macadaan (2007,Flickr)

As is my daily, Monday through Friday tradition, I time my morning showers to coincide with the local news on the AM Radio Station.     It allows me the opportuniy to start each day with the realization that the world hasn’t come to end overnight at the same time that it insures that I have at least a cursory overview of what will be discussed in the water-cooler conversations during the day.    Every now and then, I am forced to momentarily shut of the water in the shower as the story is so compelling I do not want to miss a moment.   Today there was a shut off the water moment in the shower.

Although I have yet to find this story anywhere beyond WKBK’s on-air news broadcast, here are the details as best I can recall and as close as I can quote:

“During Sunday service at the UCC church on the top of the square (Note:  The one that anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Keene is familiar with, and is pictured included in this posting), a man unfamiliar to the congregants walked to the front of the sanctuary.   He was dressed all in white, and carried the Holy Bible.    As he reached the front of the sanctuary, he stood silently and listened to the sermon.   After a few minutes police arrived, having been called to the scene by people in the pews.    The man left peacefully. No charges were filed in this suspicious person report.”


Years ago, I visited this church just as the fire was just being kindled in me to return to faith. 

Keene UCC by Lorianne DiSabato (2005, Flickr) Although my experience as a visitor of this church was enough to turn me left to visit the former Methodist Church two doors down, I always believed that it was just matter of bad timing and a bit bad luck for the UCC church (Perhaps I would be a UCC minister today?  🙂 ).  

In the end, my welcome was just that bad.    I left convinced that I was not welcomed and that I needed to find another church home.  In a completely life changing moment, the next weekend I worshipped at Grace United Methodist Church, and found a home.  That home started me on an intense journey where I found Jesus, found a calling, and found my purpose.

At the UCC church I felt like I had broken some unwritten rule about children in worship.   My daughter Annie was probably 4 months old and slept in our arms as we entered the sanctuary.    We were greeted by a half dozen worshippers but not one came with a welcome.   All 6 told us that our child would be happier downstairs in the nursery.   As first time parents with a four month old, there was no way we had the necessary trust needed to drop off our child to strangers.   In the end, she silently (and without so much as a gurgle) slept through that worship with us.  As we left three more people told us what we could do with our child on our next visit.    Part of me left wanting to tell them what they could do with their church.   In the end, I left angry and hurt.   

As I think back on it now, I can see that those raw welcomes might have had more to do with timing and chance than anything else.    There was likely no ill will meant.   I am sure that this was a church that had worked hard to insure that they were ministering to young families by creating a strong in-worship nursery and the congregation was proud of this offering.    Unfortunately the welcome and the introduction came across in a way that suggested our child (the child that was, is and will always be one of our two greatest blessings and prides) was a disturbance  and unwelcomed presence.  It might not have been intended… but there was little possibility of us accepting it as anything other than a smack.

Having worshipped and/or  preached at two dozen churches across New England I have been the recipient of many such welcomes.   As I reflect on these, I find myself wondering just how intended or unintended those welcomes really were.  I am sure that some were just as unintended.     I have heard stories of welcomes that came across wrong not only in Grace Church but at Asbury where I currently serve.     In the end, these poorly worded welcomes or unintended brush offs led to someone turning and looking elsewhere.   

At the same time I acknowledge this, I also believe that many “seekers” come into our church buildings looking for any reason to turn and walk away.    In the end, no matter how welcoming, loving or inviting we may be, they will find a reason to leave.    Deep down they know that by claiming a church as their own, a change in direction and lifestyle is required.   We each fight to avoid that moment, but it is a part of our individual faith journeys that must be realized and accepted.

Having laid this all out, I wonder if those churches that I found myself leaving with a shaking head realize how their welcomes could speak to their identity as a church.    When I think of the UCC on the top of the square, I have no other impression of the church than what I hear in the news.   There have been quite a few news stories over the last five or six years and this is just the most recent.  As I reflect on this morning’s news caption, I can understand the uncertainty and concern that a stranger in the front of a sanctuary can lead to.   At the same time, I must ask isn’t this the case with ALL strangers in worship?  Isn’t opening our doors, our sanctuary’s, and our hearts an inherently uncomfortable and risky thing?    

How are we called to respond?

I think of the UCC church and I contrast that to  Crescent Avenue Presbyterian church in Plainfield, New Jersey ( of which I am very familiar with.    They are located in very economically diverse section of New Jersey.   The church is a remnant of the days when this area of the state was incredibly prosperous.   The church is made from gorgeous stone, and its gothic design is beautiful.    They struggle with the same financial challenges that other churches do, but seem to be making inroads to a solid future.  In the end,  they seem like an everyday church with everyday challenges.   Yet, there is something that makes that church richer than Keene’s richest.

Frequently when I have worshipped there, a man who appears to be struggling with mental challenges walks the aisle, comments from the corners, and adds commentary from the all spots in the sanctuary.   Despite the obvious distraction this leads too, this church, made up of all ages and financial backgrounds, just accepts the man.    When asked about the man, the congregants respond simply;  “That’s just so-and so”.   They not only have accepted his presence, but they have welcomed him.   They know his name.   Sure, the interactions may not always be comfortable, but his presence in that congregation and the congregation’s response speaks to a faith that is leaps and bounds ahead of many other churches.  I love that church for not only the moments of family history I have witnessed in that place, but their willingness to accept that one man.  It speaks to their faith and they deserve celebration.

I compare that response AGAIN to the report from this morning’s news:

“During Sunday service at the UCC church on the top of the square, a man unfamiliar to the congregants walked to the front of the sanctuary.   He was dressed all in white, and carried the Holy Bible.    As he reached the front of the sanctuary, he stood silently and listened to the sermon.   After a few minutes police arrived, having been called to the scene by people in the pews.    The man left peacefully.   No charges were filed in this suspicious person report.”

Three final thoughts that I have yet to shake this morning….   Perhaps we all should consider these, noting that they are not intended for the Keene UCC Church but rather all churches:

  1. I wonder if we could expect Jesus to return in such a fashion?  
  2. I cannot help but reflect on the words of Hebrew 13:2  (“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” NRSV(Ang)).   Does this mean just the strangers that know their proper place in comparison to the pulpit?   Or the strangers without the 4mo. old baby?   Or the stranger that looks, acts, dresses, loves, and has the same color skin as us?
  3. And  Lastly, When I have to one day choose a new congregation to be a member of, I think I would like to pretend to be this man.    I will join, and give all my gifts to the church that says; “Oh, that’s Just Scott”.


(Note:   It is important to note that I was not at the service and the moment could have been interpreted much differently from what is seen from my armchair quarterback vantage point. In light of the history of violence in some local churches this is nothing that should be taken lightly.  My knowledge of this event is limited and only comes via the report I heard very quickly on the morning news.    Yet, if the report is correct and the man acted peacefully on the scene and left equally as peacefully, then my comments stand.   I would be interested in hearing comments and the “real story”  from anyone who was actually present.  I only address the situation as it was made known by the local press…and use it as such in an attempt to reveal how often…ALL churches miss the mark – Scott)


  1. Tim Stockton

     /  May 10, 2011

    I was not only present at the United Church of Christ in Keene on Sunday when the “Man in White” entered the Sanctuary disrupting our worship service and frightening the congration, I also called the police via my cell phone. He was not only carrying a bible, he was carying posters and a leather bag ( wich could have easily consealed a gun or guns or anthrax or…) Although he was silent, he was not invited to make his rediculous statements of the coming end of the world during the service. How disrespcetful! Following his removal from the Sanctuary, many church members stated their fears with regard to his audatious entrance and disregard for the centuries old tradtion of the service. Others stated this could have been retrobution over the recent death of Osama Bin Laden with resultant violence in the church. How was anyone to know? He was not invited. People felt very threatended. He had no business entering the church and showing such disrespect. We are a most openminded and welcoming people. When our safety is threatened such as this, people are not welcome.

  2. pastorscott2007

     /  May 10, 2011

    Thank you for your comments, Tim!

    At the start, Let me be crystal clear… I have been involved with moments like this and they certainly are uncomfortable and scary moments, and it is much easier for me to make these statements having not been there….That said,… My point of the posting was three fold. First, I wanted to discuss the perceived welcomes visitors receive as they enter our places of worship and what messages (unintended or otherwise) are received. Second, I wanted to begin the discussion that outreach and evangelism are by definition risky, scary, and uncertain activities. Lastly, I wanted to compare how the broken boundaries of an unexpected visitor in a Keene, NH church parallels the boundaries broken by Jesus 2000 years ago.

    I am not suggesting that the Keene UCC is anything other than ”welcoming and open minded”, and I cannot stress enough [edited-stm]that my interaction with the church was symptomatic of welcomes that occur all the time – in all churches. More importantly, in the end, I believe that all churches are called to take that open-mindedness even further….and perhaps,…that open mindedness may not be quite as great as we perceive.

    I would also like to toss out a couple of additional thoughts. You wrote that “He had no business entering the church and showing such disrespect” and that he displayed a “disregard for the centuries old tradition of the service”. I sense a degree of caution needed. I am reminded of the Gospel story of Mark 7 (especially 7:8, which reads “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”). The boundaries, traditions, and the proper way of acting and living our faith is exactly what Jesus calls us to question and to challenge.

    And lastly, you wrote “He was not invited”. I guess my comment on this would be Yes, he was.

    Regardless of how uncomfortable we are made by the stranger (and we all come to sanctuaries with baggage of unknown contents, unaware of the proper traditions, and without fail speak wrong or incorrect statements), he is invited and called by God. When the invitation to our sanctuaries come from us and not from God directly, the sanctuary moves from being house of God, towards a house of Man where God is recognized. There is a powerful difference worth considering.

    Again, thanks for your comments, and helping with discussion. Shalom, Scott

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