Friday, March 4, 2011

Murder in a Small Church

I've gotta tell ya - it's a weird feeling, living in a town where a preacher was just murdered.

Thursday afternoon, here in Arlington, somebody killed Baptist minister Clint Dobson and seriously beat his secretary in their church offices. Details remain sketchy at this point, but police have indicated that robbery may have been the motive. Although her injuries don't appear to be life-threatening, the secretary is lapsing in and out of consciousness even now at the hospital, preventing investigators from interviewing her.

Killing a preacher during a robbery in his church. How low will some people go?

A Church With an Identity Crisis

It's one of those contemporary churches with a goofy name. NorthPointe. A generic geographical affectation with an unnecessary "e" at the end: NorthPointe Baptist Church.

Yes, it's located in the northern side of Arlington, and it's kinda at the top of a small hill, so the name kinda makes sense. But it's only the latest in what has been a revolving door of church names, congregations, and even building purposes.

Built as a boxy, two-story office building, the physical structure was retrofitted for a church during Texas' real estate crash of the late 1980's. From what I can recall, living here as long as I have, the church never really took off. Somewhere along the way, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in town, First Baptist, took it over, and re-commissioned it as a sort of satellite off-shoot from its primary campus in central Arlington.

Under the leadership of its own ministers and support from First Baptist, this little church managed to sputter along, even though its name changed a couple of times and the congregation seemed to be in constant flux. During the past few years, the building had been expanded, and its congregation seemed to have established itself in the moderately upscale community which has grown up around it. Both churches shared ministry opportunities with Mission Arlington, First Baptist's world-famous urban outreach program. Indeed, Tillie Burgin, director of Mission Arlington, told a reporter that Dobson had served with her during one of their events just this past Sunday afternoon.

Quite frankly, though, I didn't know the latest iteration of the church's name when I heard news reports about the killing this morning on the radio. "Northpoint? North Point?" I kept asking myself. Where is that? It wasn't until somebody mentioned First Baptist Church that I realized it was probably their mission church in the northern part of town.

If NorthPointe ever had an identity crisis, it doesn't any longer.

Violence in a Sanctuary

The murder of 29-year-old Dobson, an evangelical pastor in a quiet neighborhood of a city where such violence is rare, has put NorthPointe on the map. That, and the equally bizarre assault on his secretary, 67-year-old Judy Elliott, have send reverberations through two congregations here in town, and probably through churches across North Texas.

After all, if, as police currently suspect, the motive was robbery, this could have happened at any church. Dobson had only been on staff at NorthPointe for two years, so it's unlikely he had any mortal enemies already in the community.

The church building sits between two major streets that connect about a mile away to our area's vast network of freeways, providing robbers a quick and easy getaway. And although the single family homes in the neighborhood are mostly desirable and well-maintained, there are some large apartment complexes nearby that don't have stellar reputations. It doesn't take much imagination to suspect that somebody in one of those complexes needed cash, and when they didn't get it by asking the only church in their neighborhood, they flipped out.

You see, all of the churches participating in the Mission Arlington outreach program tend to operate the same way when it comes to charity. The money they raise for helping the poor and needy generally goes directly to Mission Arlington, which has developed a sophisticated and respected processing system for evaluating charity requests. If you have a genuine need, Mission Arlington can usually provide you with food, an apartment, furniture, clothing, transportation, all sorts of healthcare, backpacks for school, daycare... the list goes on and on. Plus, churches know the money and volunteer hours they're contributing are being spent wisely and prudently.

It's a system that has proven to be tremendously successful here in Arlington, and has been replicated by churches in other cities across North America.

Smile When Asking for Money

Years ago, when I worked at a non-denominational church here in Arlington, the pastoral staff wisely decided that since we had joined the Mission Arlington program, we weren't going to keep a lot of spare cash on hand in our offices for benevolence.

One day, a suspicious black guy stormed into our receptionist's office, complaining he needed cash for something. When our sweet, kind receptionist told him we didn't keep money in the office anymore, the guy started getting belligerent, accusing us of racism. I heard the growing commotion, and went to the reception area to see what was going on.

You may not be surprised to learn that I don't suffer fools for very long. After quickly determining that this guy was becoming increasingly abusive, I asked him if he'd take the word of one of our pastors that we didn't keep cash on-site. He said of course he would.

Although most of our pastors weren't in the office at that moment, I knew one of our pastoral interns was. I paged down to his office, quickly explained the situation, and asked him to come to reception and give him the official word. So he did.

Can you imagine the look on the indignant indigent's face when our pastoral intern, a young black man, strode into reception with a no-nonsense demeanor and asked what the problem was! The guy who had been asking for money, and accusing us white folks of not being hospitable to a humble black man, was shocked.

Needless to say, he didn't stay around much longer, either.

The True Identity Crisis of Eternal Proportions

Looking back on that episode, I suppose we should have been a bit more careful about the reaction our beggar might have had, but times were innocent enough then that we didn't think murder lurked behind every demand for cold, hard cash.

Which may be one of the things that changes after we learn more details about what happened at NorthPointe Baptist Church yesterday. Many churches already lock their doors, employ security firms, and even patrol Sunday activities with armed guards. The thin line between being available to the needy and protecting yourself gets increasingly frayed as our world becomes more violent.

How particularly ironic, however, that two of the churches who participate on the front lines of social outreach in our community have been victimized by such a heinous crime.

The cynic would probably say that "no good deed goes unpunished."

But, at least in this instance, this cynic knows that God's sovereignty will prove to be right and true. Somehow.

If we think we can control events in this world, or if we think we can control the money we think is ours, then we suffer from an identity crisis, too. Only one more serious than had dodged this church in the boxy white office building here in Arlington.

God vets those who receive His blessings through the blood of His Son, through Whom we receive our eternal identity as brother to Christ, and children of God. Or not. Even more incredible involves the fact that the robber who killed this pastor could someday be redeemed. And for his sake, we should pray towards that end.

Our Father will have the final say. Thanks be to God.

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