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Churches often pull back from violence victims, Maples says

SAN ANTONIO (BP)–Often, when random violence strikes, congregations and communities react by pulling back from the survivors and victims, Dick Maples said.
“One of the strangest phenomenons of violent death is that, as the community tries to cope with the shock that such a thing could happen in their town and to find a rational explanation for the crime, they somehow feel that the victim must have done something to cause his/her death,” said Maples, director of the church/minister relations department of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“In cases of random violence, the community’s response is often to distance itself from the victims at a time when they most need help,” he said.
Maples told participants in a conference on “The Church and Random Violence,” at First Baptist Church of San Antonio, March 29, that pastors have a responsibility to interpret to the church and community the facts of the tragedy.
“We must help them understand that random violence is a criminal act for which the criminal and the criminal alone is responsible,” he said, noting that ministers must keep congregations involved with the grieving victim and family.
“This is not a time to pull back from them or to isolate them as if they have a communicable disease. This is a time for the church to put its arms around the family and love them back to wholeness, and for the community to express its encouragement and acceptance,” said Maples, who was a pastor for 34 years before joining the BGCT staff.
He recounted his own experiences of dealing with an act of random violence, in which a 10-year-old girl, a member of the church of which he was pastor, was abducted, raped and murdered.
That experience — and the experience of serving as pastor in Texas City, where more than 600 people were killed when a ship loaded with fertilizer had exploded a decade before he became pastor — taught him that ministering to people in sudden death situations, such as traffic or construction accidents, is very different from ministering to victims of random criminal violence.
“There is nothing to compare with the impact and profound shock of sudden and unexpected violent death,” he said.
In all of the instances, “the most important thing a minister can do is to be present physically and emotionally to the family over the long haul,” he said.
He said he adopted the practice of going to be with families “with my arms outstretched and my mouth zipped.”
“It is not what you say, it is who you are: a representative of God, a source of spiritual strength, a friend. We don’t need to have all the answers — at times like these, there are no answers — so we dare not give these desperately wounded children of God empty cliches.”
He encouraged churches and pastors to give victims of random violence “the gift of listening. There is tremendous power in the act of listening to our people in times of violence.”
He concluded by noting that in times of grief, stress and loss after acts of violence “the greatest gift the minister and the church has to offer is hope. We hold out hope that these victimized survivors will recover from their sad grief and life will go on again.
“We hold out the hope of God’s help, remembering the words of Psalm 34:18 — ‘the Lord is near the brokenhearted’ — and we hold out the hope of the resurrection. It is the promise we will one day be with our loved ones. ‘Because I live, you will live also,’ Jesus said.”
The conference was sponsored jointly by the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ church/minister relations department, the LeaderCare ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and the San Antonio Baptist Association.

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  • Dan Martin