Holy ground: Yes, the walls of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs will be coming down

During the Communist revolution, Bolsheviks would go out of their way -- when executing a Russian Orthodox priest -- to place him on the altar of his parish and THEN shoot and/or stab him to death.

This accomplished several goals at one time, including desecrating the altar so that it could not be used again in worship without a future visit by a bishop to perform the elaborate rites to reconsecrate a church for celebrations of the Divine Liturgy. This was hard to do, since the Bolsheviks were killing all the bishops, as well (other than a very small number who cooperated with the revolution).

I bring this up because of an interesting Religion News Service feature that has just been released with this headline: "Texas church to be demolished, like other mass killing sites before it."

We are talking, of course, about the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, where gunman Devin Patrick Kelley -- apparently in a futile attempt to kill his mother-in-law -- went ahead and shot every person in the Sunday morning service, killing 26 and wounding others. Here's a key passage near the top of this story:

In what is becoming a grim American ritual, mass shooting sites from Sandy Hook to Columbine have been demolished and then rebuilt. But some churches that experienced horrific killings have sought to reclaim existing sacred spaces.
That’s not the case with First Baptist. Frank Page, president and CEO of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Steve Gaines, the SBC’s president, confirmed the decision to demolish the church after meeting in Sutherland Springs on Tuesday (Nov. 7) with Frank Pomeroy, its grieving pastor.
“They did say, ‘We can’t go back in there,’” said Page, referring to Pomeroy’s remaining church members. “It’s going to be a reminder of the horrific violence against innocent people.”

This is one of those stories that I am very thankful RNS took on, but I still want to raise a question or two about it.

To be blunt: It's true that religious sanctuaries are, as a rule, considered "sacred spaces." I get that. However, there are religious traditions in which some spaces -- parts of those facilities -- have literally been consecrated, in elaborate rites, as holy. That was a factor, many readers may recall, in the punk-rock feminist demonstrations "on the altar (apparently inside the altar area)" off the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Russia.

Now, I grew up Southern Baptist in Texas and, early in his ministry, my father led small-town congregations. This story has really hit home for me this week. I totally understand the desire among families in that small town to never have to enter  that sanctuary again. What percentage of the active members of the church died? Was it 25 or even 50 percent?

The story notes:

Page said an anonymous donor agreed to fund the construction of a new church. The convention’s North American Mission Board has offered to pay for all of the funerals even though Texas’ Crime Victims’ Compensation program would have done so.
“We’re going to take care of our own people,” Page said.
The church structure may be in danger after hundreds of bullets pockmarked the walls. Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr. of Wilson County described a gruesome scene of “blood everywhere” inside the church.
“You wouldn’t think they’d want to relive that,” said Andy Wyatt, a resident of Sutherland Springs who built themed vacation Bible study sets for children at First Baptist Church though he was not a member. “They deserve something bigger and better. You want to start fresh, anew.”

This part of the story is really solid.

My only question was whether it would have been good to have included one extra voice in the story from a leader in an ancient tradition that has a more formal concept of "sacred space." Why? Ironically, it's possible that -- in the minds of believers -- rites to purify and reconsecrate a violated sanctuary may be just as healing and cathartic as tearing a building down and starting over.

So, rather than a Catholic liturgical leader, or an Anglican, or someone in Eastern Orthodoxy, readers hear from a leader -- a valid interview, let me stress -- in one of the least formal religious traditions imaginable.

Because houses of worship are considered sanctified, worshippers may feel the need to reclaim their sacred space. But that can be done in different ways.
Michelle Walsh, a Unitarian Universalist minister who teaches courses at Boston University on trauma and theology, studied a Knoxville Unitarian Universalist Church as it recovered after a lone gunman killed two and wounded seven during a children’s play in 2008.
Pews were realigned, walls were repainted, a curtain filled with bullet holes was removed but saved. A week after the killings, the church rededicated the sanctuary in a service that included blessing the spots where the dead fell and the hanging of a plaque. The whole thing concluded with a hymn, “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door.”

Let me stress again that I think input from what historians would call "low church" traditions was essential, especially with a Southern Baptist flock at the heart of the story. However, I think it would have been interesting to address what happens in older, more formal, religious traditions. Are there reconsecration rites among traditional Jews, for example?

Just asking. This is a must read story and I hope other journalists follow up on this topic.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from CNN coverage.

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