April 12, 2007
(Some) Sinners Welcome
Can a church embrace those on the margins without excluding its core?
This week the New York Times ran a story about a controversy dividing a church in Carlsbad, California. Outside Pilgrim United Church of Christ hangs a banner that reads "All are welcome." Now that claim is being tested.
In January, a 53 year old attender at the church, Mark Pliska, informed the congregation that he had been convicted in the past for molesting children. The leaders and members of Pilgrim United Church of Christ now face a dilemma. Can the church be inclusive, even to convicted child molesters, and still be a safe environment for children and adults healing from past sexual abuse?
The pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Rev. Madison Shockley, finds himself caught between two factions in the congregation. The Times reports:
Before introducing Mr. Pliska to the congregation, Mr. Shockley spoke to a few congregants who had been abused as children and to parents, and none objected to Mr. Pliska's inclusion.
But Mr. Pliska's introduction unlocked a flood of emotions among the 300 members.
"The scariest moment," Mr. Shockley said, "was when I got the feeling in the congregation about whether Mark could attend or not, and we needed more time, yet people were saying ?If he stays, I leave,' or ?If he leaves, I leave.' "
One member of the congregation, David Irvine, who was sexually abused as a child, recognizes that welcoming Mr. Pliska will mean excluding others.
"There are people who feel that if we don't welcome Mark, we lose who we are. But what do you say to one member who was abused for 10 years, several times a week? By welcoming one person, are we rescinding our welcome to some of the survivors among us, people in pain and healing, members of our family?"
Can a church welcome former child molesters, and others on the margins of society, and still maintain its core? Or, must a church clearly define who is welcome and who is not? We encourage you to read the article on the New York Times website and share your insights. We look forward to reading your stories and opinions.