The Christian Church: Binding Up Wounds

The Christian Church - How God used a pastor's nightmare to bring an inner-city congregation reconciliation and hope.

by Carol Foster Bowling

It was October, ordinarily one of my favorite months of the year. But dusk had fallen, and I was alone in the old grey stone rowhouse which served as a parsonage for the United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., to which my husband had been appointed by our bishop in June. Just three months ago we had moved in, and I was still not used to the many changes forced upon us by life in the inner city.

For 12 years my husband had served the Methodist Church as Associate Secretary of the Commission on Chaplains. Although his position required him to be away from home several months each year, Herley had enjoyed the challenges of his work and the travels which took him to distant parts of the globe to pastor and counsel chaplains serving overseas. My husband’s absences were a real sacrifice for me, but there had been many rewards too. While other clergy families moved frequently, we had been able to settle down in a pleasant Maryland suburb where I could raise our two boys and enjoy a measure of stability.

But now our boys were grown up. My husband, feeling that I would be alone too much, had resigned from his position at the Commission and accepted this assignment. Moving had always been difficult for me, and it was hard to leave the pretty little house with the big sunny backyard where I had experienced the joys of motherhood. To make matters worse, our new assignment was a hardship post. The movers had noted with amazement the contrast between the two neighborhoods and had asked why we would want to move here. I wondered that myself.

It was 1969, only a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Our new home was just a few blocks away from the scene of the terrible riots which followed. The pastor who preceded us at this church had vividly described the glass-strewn streets, the columns of black smoke billowing angrily toward the sky, and the brick which had come crashing through his car window. Almost worse were the deserted streets and the awful silence which came afterward.

Passions were still smoldering. Everyone was angry, especially young black people. Racial tensions were high, and we were unsure of how welcome we would be in our mostly black neighborhood. Would people wonder what this new white minister was doing in their community? Our church was deeply committed to the idea of integration. Formerly a white congregation, it had witnessed white flight to the suburbs, but many white parishioners lived near the church or returned to worship on Sunday morning. Our congregation was now about 60 percent black and 40 percent white. We knew that we were on the front lines of a great spiritual battle for justice and equality. I didn’t feel equal to the task to which we’d been called, nor brave, but Herley believed that God knew what He was doing. If the Lord had called him to this post, then he must be the man for this hour and this place.

Our work was cut out for us. The parsonage was connected to the church in such a way as to form a v-shaped alcove between the two buildings. From my living room window I had already witnessed teenagers shooting heroine in this alcove, somewhat hidden from the view of passing cars. The church had opened its doors to neighborhood youth who wanted to shoot baskets in the church basement, but already we suspected that some were taking advantage of our hospitality to hide drugs there.

On this particular Saturday evening with the early darkness of autumn falling rapidly, my worst fears were confirmed. Herley had had a late meeting at church. He was standing at the front door just outside the sanctuary, having locked up for the night. Suddenly three black teenagers approached from behind and asked if they could play in the gym. Herley had to say no. These were not the regular hours, and no one was available to provide supervision. Angered, the boys attacked him without warning. One of them grabbed Herley by the throat, growling a command, “Don’t make no noise!”

Before Herley realized what was happening, another one hit him on the head with a “blackjack” – a sock filled with BB-gun pellets. The third pulled out a knife and slashed Herley under both eyes before stabbing him in the back. Herley struggled at first until he realized that the boys could well kill him. When they threw him down, he played dead, as they took his wallet and the keys to the church. The vicious attack was witnessed from a distance by Dr. Haskel Miller, who had also been at the meeting. But Dr. Miller was lame so he couldn’t get to Herley fast enough to provide help himself. Instead he hurried to the nearest phone to call our able lay leader, Fred Wilkes.

Herley staggered up the steps and into the parsonage, ringing the bell to the front door. He was stunned and bleeding heavily. With so much blood on his face, I didn’t recognize him at first. I saw the boys running away and knew that there had been big trouble. I stood there terrified, rooted to the spot, and unable to provide my husband with assistance.

At that moment a well-dressed black man appeared in the doorway. The situation was too intense for me to notice much more than his kind expression and his air of authority. Pushing us both aside, he immediately took charge of everything. For some reason, I knew I could trust this stranger.

“Where is your telephone?” he demanded calmly.

After dialing 911 and requesting an ambulance, he looked at me again. “Get me some towels and hot water.”

Within minutes he had gently wiped my husband’s face and cleaned the wound on his back. He stayed with us until the ambulance left to take Herley to the hospital. By this time Fred Wilkes had arrived, offering to drive me to the emergency room. When I turned to thank our Good Samaritan, he was gone. I hadn’t had a chance to even ask his name or where he lived so that I might express my profound gratitude. We never saw him again.

Needless to say, our parishioners were horrified by what had happened to their new pastor. The sanctuary was hushed the next morning as Fred took Herley’s place in the pulpit. Fred, formerly the pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal congregation, was well qualified to give a sermon. However, his experience the previous night, waiting with me in a crowded emergency room until 2:00 a.m., had left him exhausted and unprepared to preach. In spite of that, his words were powerful.

Fred said he didn’t have much to preach about that day except the forgiveness of God. He gave voice to the anguish of a people facing the challenge of healing wounds so deep and so terrible that we were always in danger of losing our way on the pathway of hope and of falling into despair.

The Lord used this dreadful experience in a redemptive way. It won for Herley and me instant acceptance in our new parish. When Herley appeared, limping and bandaged, the hearts of the people went out to him. Roles were reversed as the vulnerability of the leader was revealed. Joined in a common experience of suffering, facing together the social and personal evils looming large over our city and over our families, we began to move together into the future with hope.

Editor’s Note: Carol Foster Bowling wrote this article after listening carefully to her mother-in-law, Louise Bowling, share this experience. Louise is now in her eighties.

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