If you weren’t there this may seem more than a little insensitive, but from my perspective, the months after Kyle died were some of the best in the short history of UBC, before or since. Don’t misunderstand, we were wrecked with grief and would have traded November 1 for October 29th in a heartbeat. I suffered minor anxiety attacks and found it difficult some days to get out of bed. A future without Kyle, for many of us, was unbearable to imagine. We lost someone we couldn’t live without. But we clung to what Anne Lamott, one of Kyle’s favorite authors, wrote…
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
We were limping badly. But we were also learning to dance with the limp.
In a peculiar case of convergence, which many of us have yet to wrap our minds around, David and his band released an album that wrestled with the themes of death, loss and grief– not after, but a month before Kyle passed away. The album (in my opinion) was the band’s greatest work, and arguably, at the time, the most creative and powerful work of art in the short history of the modern worship genre. It became the soundtrack for the story we were dancing in. It was medicine.
That we would continue as a church was never in doubt, but it was obvious we couldn’t return to the building on 17th and Dutton for the foreseeable future. In the early days there was still an investigation going on, and after that was completed church leadership decided it would be best to remodel some of the building to make it look somewhat different, removing some of the visual reminders of what had happened before, and serving as a symbol of our moving forward. I was not a part of any of those decisions, as I had yet to have any formal leadership role in the church, but I did think it was a good idea. (I still do.) And it made financial sense, as we were receiving monetary donations from people and churches all over the world who heard our story and were moved by compassion to help.
For a couple of weeks we accepted the hospitality of Baylor and held multiple services in the chapel of Truett Seminary, before moving to our temporary home in the Waco Hippodrome located downtown, which was the venue UBC spent most of its time in between its inception and when it moved into the building on Dutton.
Two pastors from sister churches in Austin, Gideon and Don, took turns preaching in the weeks after Kyle passed away, with Gideon eventually taking on more steady interim-preaching duties. (Their churches met on Sunday nights, making this possible.) In addition to them, several leaders from the Emerging Church movement– Brian McLaren, Tony Jones and Donald Miller– also filled in from time to time.
It was this outpouring of care an compassion from many outside our community that made congregational life possible during those days. People saw we were hurting and stepped in to take some of the logistical concerns of Sunday mornings off the table for us, so that we could focus our energies on simply being together.
We were honoring the final words of Kyle’s last sermon to “taste every ounce of friendship” by making a point to be together as much as possible.
I believe this time marked a seismic shift in the identity of the church, inadvertently moving us away from being a “church for college students” to being a “church, which was made up largely of college students.” Before this, the primary identifying marker for what made someone a “UBC’er,” outside a formal membership structure, was whether that person regularly attended worship services at UBC. Although there were some small groups that pulled people into the life of the church, and a few of us had started to form a “UBC identity,” for the most part, though, most at UBC had their social and emotional needs met by the campus community (as most university students do,) not from their church.
With Kyle’s death, there was a need for those of us who were part of the same tragedy to meet together regularly with each other. All over town groups of UBC’ers, large and small, began to pop up in homes, restaurants and bars, with the simple goal of just being with each other. What began as an innate need to connect over a shared tragedy turned into something altogether different, and it felt good. Very good.
For several years before this we had been holding “Love Feasts,” potluck dinners for the entire church. I remember my first Love Feast well, in the fall of 2000. We all gathered, in the back room of the church around tables, some of us nervously navigating our way around the social contours of this new community. There were just a few dozen of us, which felt very large at the time. We fumbled through introductions, tried to figure out the best system for arranging food, and there was a palpable sense that we were struggling with figuring out what community would look like in our context.
We angled our movements around the room during dinner to be the next person to hold Avery, our only baby at the time.
The Thanksgiving Love Feast after Kyle died, conversely, felt like a massive family reunion. It was easy and joyous. There were at least 200-300 people and we filled up the Great Hall, a large room at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. There were kids and young families, along with a small amount of “older” folks in their 40’s and 50’s. There was a strange feeling that laughter and life were blankets to our sadness, not smothering the grief, but allowing it to rest and to breathe.
Who was it that said the Gospel of Jesus means that the worst thing is never the last thing? The Thanksgiving Love Feast was reminding us that this is true.
Britt, who was also from East Texas and had been an acquaintance of mine since I moved to Waco, and Holly, a Baylor student, were there together, kind of. At least they were standing together when I walked up to them and exclaimed, “Oh, I didn’t know y’all were together!,” creating a very awkward moment, since they weren’t technically together together, but they wanted to be. (We would laugh about that a couple of years later when I performed their wedding ceremony.)
Matt was there. A fellow large man, we bonded over carving the turkey and sharing how much we secretly love to eat the crispy skin off the turkey breast, starting a tradition that lasted for years. I still text him every time I make a turkey and eat the skin.
Ben, the Community Pastor, was there making sure everything ran smoothly. In those days he began to take on responsibilities that no one ever imagined he would have to take on—logistical, legal and administrative concerns that sprang up after Kyle’s death, not to mention the work of maintaining the daily operations of a church. In later years he and I would butt heads quite a bit, but regardless of our differences, more than anyone else he was the glue that held us all together in those days.
Jen was there. Naturally, those days were hardest on her. Not only had she lost the love of her life, but in a sense she lost her previously held place within the community as well. This was true both on a general level—she was no longer the “preacher’s wife,” but rather, the “former preacher’s widow,” but on a positional level as well. The leadership structure of UBC was made up of the pastoral staff, which ran the weekly operations of the church, and a Leadership Team, which was responsible for casting the vision of, and making large decisions for the church. The Leadership Team consisted of the pastoral staff, and non staff that added up to a number that was one more than the amount of staff members. In addition to this, the spouses of pastoral staff also held a non-voting place on the Leadership Team. This was likely a result of the fact that Toni, David’s wife, and Lisa, Chris’ wife, were instrumental in providing leadership in the early days of the church.
After Kyle’s death there was a greater need for the Leadership Team to meet more regularly, and in the early days Jen was a part of those meetings. But as important decisions were being made about the future of the church, it was decided by the Leadership Team that it would be best to have Jen rotate off the team immediately. This was likely inevitable (her position was based on her relationship with a pastor, who was no longer with us,) but was done abruptly and awkwardly. This was perhaps the first instance, post-Kyle, in which it became very clear that we needed some outside guidance from folks wiser than us.
Certainly, there was no template for what we were going through, but we were essentially children making very grown up decisions. Several pastors in town, many who had become close to Kyle in a ministerial peer group, reached out to us offering help, which was declined by our leadership. An outside voice could have helped us thoughtfully plan for the weeks and days ahead, which would have eased some of the pain caused by certain decisions, such as the one to remove Jen so quickly from Leadership Team.
This had always been our theme: We were the church that made things up as we went along, and as we saw fit. It was our greatest source of energy and creativity that made us such a vibrant and vital community from the beginning. But in tragedy and its aftermath, it became our greatest weakness.