Another church became a crime scene this weekend when a man walked into the First United Presbyterian Church in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, and allegedly shot his ex-wife. Darlene Sitler, a popular music teacher, died. Other members of the congregation were spared physical injury, but they had to wrestle the suspect, Sitler's ex-husband, Gregory Eldred, to the ground and hold him until the cops arrived.
It's a sad story for the Sitler family, for the school district where she was a beloved teacher, and for a neighboring district where Eldred was likewise a music teacher. And it adds to a growing list of shootings in places of worship in this country. It's as though the havens so many Americans depend on are under attack.
Churches, mosques, temples, synagogues ... in America they were once treated with a certain amount of respect. I was raised in the Catholic faith and consider myself lapsed these days, but the church of my childhood is still a place I consider a haven, a building I walk into (mostly for funerals and weddings these days), expecting to be safe.
But no more.
We have incidents like this one in Coudersport, where Darlene Sitler was apparently just sitting in the pew when her ex walked right up the middle aisle of the church with a gun and allegedly opened fire on Sunday morning. We have mass shootings like the one that shook the Sikh community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin this past August when a man opened fire inside a temple. We have killings in the middle of prayer services, like the shooting of a man leading the service at an Atlanta megachurch earlier this fall.
Fortunately we also have heroes like the people who tackled this man to the ground in Coudersport, like the hero cop in Oak Creek. It does something for the flagging spirit. But it can't erase the unease.
I have little understanding of the psyche of those who choose to inflict bodily harm on another to begin with, yet there's something particularly unsettling about those who choose to disrupt the sanctity of a place of worship to do so. If there is no respect for a sanctuary, if crime and death can find us there, where is our harbor in a storm to be?
Do you feel safe in the places of worship in your town?
Image via Jeremy Vandel/Flickr