Vandalism as Conversation-Starter

The Rev. Thomas Broad and wardens of Grace Episcopal Church in the rural hamlet of Randolph, New York engaged in a remarkable act of social media ministry this week.

I learned about this on Facebook, when the photo above was posted on the church’s page. But this digital post is not the act of social media ministry to which I refer. Rather, I’m talking about the small parish’s decision to recognize the church building itself as a communication medium.

The tag, it turns out, is a lyric from a powerful, disturbing, and spiritually freighted song, “King Park,” by the post-hardcore punk band La Dispute. The song deals with the shooting death of a teen caught in a drive-by shooting in the King Park neighborhood of Grand Rapids, Michigan and the subsequent suicide of one of the suspected shooters as police closed in on him where he was holed up in a local hotel.

A postmodern dream vision, the song imagines the initial murder, the response by the community and police, and the theological question that animated the last moments of the shooter’s life. It is a meditation on violence, death, sin, and the hope for forgiveness, with lyricist Jordan Dreyer’s narrator entering the dreamscape with a desire to capture the deeper meaning of the tragedy:

I want to write it all down so I can always remember.
If you could see it up close how could you ever forget how
senseless death, how precious life.
I want to be there when the bullet hit.

As the dream draws to the end of the episode, the narrator listens in on a final conversation between the shooter and his uncle:

I heard them trying to reason, get him to open the door.
His uncle begging and pleading, half-collapsed to the floor.
He preached of hope and forgiveness, said,
“There is always a chance to rectify what you’ve taken, make your peace in the world.”
I thought to slip through the door, I could’ve entered the room,
I felt the burden of murder, it shook the earth to the core.
Felt like the world was collapsing. Then we heard him speak,
“Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?
Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?
Can I ever be forgiven cuz I killed that kid?”

None of this background was known to Broad or other members of the Grace Church community when “Can I still get to heaven if I kill myself” appeared in two-foot letters on the side of the modest, Victorian church on Monday. (Broad later googled the phrase and found his way to the video and lyrics of the song.) Grace was among a number of buildings tagged in the area, and the initial response was dismay.

Rather than approaching the tagging as a criminal act, however, church leaders decided to take the graffiti seriously as an expression of something spiritually meaningful—a cry for help, perhaps; even a mocking expression of religious skepticism. They approached it relationally, using the church building itself as a social media platform, and responding with their own message of hope:

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“Like in many small, rural communities, teenagers in the area often struggle with nothing to do, with drinking, and so on,” said Broad of the likely culprits. “Some of the tagging was truly malicious,” he added. “The doors of the Roman Catholic church down the road were sprayed with ‘Satan’s House.’ Still, we wanted to respond as someone who cares, as someone who listens, even when the forum for conversation isn’t exactly conventional.”

The After School Special version of the story would, I suppose, have the responsible wayward youth come forward to confess: “Ah, Fadder,” a shamefaced ruffian would mutter, eyes to the ground, “we was just blowing off steam.” An earnest conversion would follow. Cue music. Clergy who encounter the story will certainly have much sermon fodder along those lines for the coming week.

But the bigger conversion, it seems to me, is of a small church in a world of changing, arguably declining, religiosity recognizing that the main currents of religious and spiritual meaning-making flow outside its doors. It’s the story of a fairly traditional church actively recognizing that religious doubt, religious critique, and all manner of theological questioning that once would have been seen as belonging squarely within the clapboard walls of a village church unfold in a much wider, much more broadly networked universe.

In this universe, the words of a relatively obscure punk band wend their way from Grand Rapids, Michigan via YouTube or Pandora or Slacker to a church wall in Western New York while the forty or so diehard worshippers at Grace Episcopal (fewer than half of whom, according to Broad, use any electronic communication) sleep perhaps a bit too soundly through the night. The promise of conversion in this story, then, has to do with a church waking up to a bigger world, a more complex and challenging religiosity, and responding to it with, dare we say, a measure of grace that speaks not merely to angst-ridden teenage taggers, a small parish community, or a rural town, but also to the blur of cars along the highway outside the church, drivers waving and honking as they pass, read the tags, and head down the highway—as well as to the clicks of digital believers, seekers, and skeptics who shared the story across social media in the hours since it appeared.

“I think people in our parishes sometimes think there’s Grace Church in Randolph, the Holy Land on the other side of the world,” said Broad, “and nothing in between. This experience has opened us to a all kinds of new questions in the local community and the wider world about how people become disenchanted with the church, about how they deal with their problems. We can’t help but pay attention.”

Grace Church, Randolph, the Rev. Broad reports, is due to be repainted over the summer, so the first signal of this new, wider conversation will remain for a few more weeks, inviting, he hopes, deeper reflection within and beyond the parish. He’s not sure how they might preserve it or continue it. But he’s relatively certain that there’s really no way to paint over it.

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com