It feels like I’ve lived here a lifetime, which is remarkable, in way, since I only visited this little town on the Connecticut-Rhode Island border for the first time seven years ago this June. The truth is that I needed a job and there was one open at the stately-if-a-little-dilapidated grand lady of a church on the corner of Reynolds and Main Sts. in downtown Danielson. I remember my first visit there. I climbed up the back steps smelling the musty, damp scent I would learn all old buildings seem to share up here in the summer. I made my way through the labyrinthine hallways and into that cavernous sanctuary. I asked my guide if I could step up into the pulpit–the big, central, wooden one that dominates the front of the church. “Sure,” he said with a smile. So I climbed the stairs and put a hand on each side of the podium and looked out on the empty pews, wondering what future that room with me in it held.
The day my congregation voted to call me as their pastor was an exciting one. It was a few months after that first visit, and I’d been through an entire weekend of meetings and interviews. I’d been put through the wringer with questions. One long-timer introduced herself, shook my hand, then said, “So, what do you think about hell?” These people weren’t messing around.
But after the service that Sunday–after I preached and prayed–the congregation convened to decide our future. The vote was unanimous, and while I knew that meant I had a job, I didn’t realize exactly what happened that day. That day every person in that room, with their vote, chose me for a different reason. The young parents chose me to teach their kids about God’s love, and the long-time members chose me to remember the old days. The middle-aged folks chose me to pray with them, and the newly retired chose me to find a place for them in their new phase of life. The elderly–and this is the one that nearly breaks me when I think about it–chose me to hold their hand when they die. They chose me to bury them.
Together, this congregation chose me to care not just for them, but for their town.
And it’s been one of my greatest joys to do that. I count it as an honor to be someone who walks not just with my congregation but with my town, who doesn’t just pray for the people in my pews on Sunday morning, but for all of us who call this place home, who claims–as we’d say in the South–all y’all.
When I look back over the last seven years, I realize just how much walking and praying that has been. Together, we’ve faced tragedies and we’ve celebrated. We’ve wept together and held each other. We’ve asked big questions together and played together. We’ve cried tears of joy over championships and tears of despair over children gone too soon.
Thousands of you have sung Christmas carols at our Victorian Christmas or hunted thousands of eggs at our egg hunt or ran a race beneath our spire that started with the chime of the bell. For more than 300 years we’ve been caring for the Heart of Killingly–because you’ve let us. Thank you.
But I’m not writing to you just as the pastor of that church. I am also writing to you as a resident of this town. Not as one who grew up in these parts, but as one who–out of all the places to live–chose to live here, to call this corner my own, to even buy a home here.
It was recently announced that the Killingly School Board is considering changing the mascot of Killingly High School. And in response, many of you have voiced your opinion. I think that’s great. I think having robust conversation around challenging issues is essential to our progress as a community.
But it seems to me (and, I trust, some of you) that those conversations have devolved into something worse. Instead of healthy engagement, they’ve become mud-slinging and, at times, hate-filled, dumps of opinion that make no space not just for alternate opinions, but the humanity of others. This is not the Killingly I know.
The Killingly I know is a generous one–one that helped my congregation rebuild one of the most iconic structures in the region when we couldn’t do it ourselves. The Killingly I know is one that shows up for each other when the unimaginable has happened. The Killingly I know cheers at little league games beside each other and pitches in to help each other and makes room for people who aren’t like you.
How do I know?
Because you made room for me–a young pastor with hardly any experience from Georgia who seven years ago had never heard of this little town in this little corner of this little state.
I’m not going to weigh-in on the debate (although it’s not for lack of opinion), but I do want to leave you with a few things about how we engage this conversation. I vowed to walk with this town through it all, including moments like this. So here it is:
1) People are people first. When engaging someone you disagree with, don’t forget their humanity. It’s the thing that binds us together. Disagree with someone. Fine. Don’t demean them or make them less than they are.
2) Decide what deserves your time and attention. Really fired up? Great! Go to the school board meeting. Tell them all about it. I bet they’ll be glad to hear from you. But remember that your time is a finite resource. And if you want to use it on social media arguing with people you don’t know in the comment sections of local pages, you can. But there’s more to life that proving you’re right.
3) Pray about it. I know, I know. But I’m a pastor, and this legit helps. Even if you’re not religious, taking a minute to think about whether or not you want to post a reply or escalate an argument might provide an opportunity for perspective.
4) You can’t speak for others; You can speak for yourself. Many, many, many comments have made assertions for entire groups of people on both sides of this issue. The truth is none of us can speak for anyone but ourselves.
5) Look for the good. There’s so much heartbreak in the world, isn’t there? There’s so much to be distraught over, to worry about, to fret over. Don’t add to it. Instead, look for the good. I see it everyday. And I bet you do, too. Share it. Amplify it. Trumpet it. The world needs more good, not more disdain.
6) Be kind. The truth is that we’re in the together. People are watching. Our kids are watching. Make them proud.
I know you didn’t come here for a lecture, and I don’t mean it to be. Truly. But sometimes your heart hurts when you encounter such vitriol, particularly from the very people you live alongside. And sometimes, you’ve got to say something.
I’m here for you, Killingly. Of all the places to be, it’s here I choose, and here I’ll stay.
Love you. Seriously.