Churches on the front lines

When tragedy strikes a community, it’s commonplace for government officials to “call on members of the clergy” for their participation and input in responding to the crisis. The recent acts of violence in our city are not an exception: In an article last week in the Tribune, various government officials invited clergy to be part of a program that has been proven to curb gun violence significantly in other cities and is now being brought to Warren.

When this happens, I often feel a mix of emotions. I at first feel, on behalf of clergy and the church, honored, humbled even, to be invited to be present and to have a voice in such a situation. But then a different feeling kicks in, and it’s often something like grief, or maybe even shame, rooted in the question, “Why do they have to ask us?”

You see, I’m grieved that the church has to be asked into such conversations. I’m grieved that more of us aren’t already at the front lines, engaged daily in fighting these issues in our community. Instead we have to be reluctantly drafted to serve in such times. It seems to me that the church has often chosen to take a back seat, becoming passive instead of proactive regarding the issues that our community struggles with.

Look, when Jesus said that the church is the salt of the earth, He meant that Christianity was to act not only as a preservative force in the culture, but also a sanitizing one: eliminating society’s challenges long before they got out of hand. That’s why the earliest Christians were known for their care for the poor, the sick and the homeless.

But something happened in the last century or so of our history that many of us retreated into our buildings and stopped doing our jobs. We stopped preserving, we stopped sanitizing; that’s why gun violence is out of hand, that children suffer poverty more than any other age group, and why hunger is still something to be fought.

When clergy are invited to join civil authorities in an effort to fight (insert-a-problem-here), something is wrong, because it should have been the civil authorities receiving an initiation to join the church in her efforts to solve the problem. At some point, we forfeited our frontline position and let everyone else take care of it.

I guess what I am trying to say is this: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that the church has had an identity crisis for the last century and a half, and that many of us decided we could either be pious or proactive, but not both. I’m sorry that we didn’t solve problems like gun violence or poverty in Warren sooner, so that I wouldn’t even have to be writing this article.

The way forward is for the regional church in Trumbull County to recapture its ancient mandate to care for the least, the last, and the lost. We can reclaim the compassion the early church, and take in orphans and widows. We can reimagine the courage of Roman Catholic Church, best modeled by Mother Theresa, for going across the world and stepping knee-deep into society’s muck and mire. We can once again become creative, like Chicago’s D.L. Moody, who stopped at nothing to connect those in greatest need with a better way. We can emulate the collaborative spirit of Billy Graham, who has always reached his hand across the aisle to serve communities everywhere.

Tennant is a Warren resident. Email him at