In early 2006, leadership from the church held a “Town Hall” meeting to keep the church updated on what was going on with regards to decisions in the wake of Kyle’s death. The content primarily centered on the timeline for returning to the church building, what groups and other opportunities were being offered in the new year, and other minor logistical concerns. As it became clear there was no plan to address the elephant in the room, Nathan raised his hand and asked boldly and unapologetically, “What is the process going to be for finding a new teaching pastor, and are we going to be a part of that process?” (Nathan, a close friend of the Lake family, was the drummer in the band leading music on the day Kyle died, and was the person who initially pulled Kyle out of the baptism waters when the accident happened.)
David and Ben, the two pastors at the time, seemed taken aback at the question, which surprised many of us, because it was the question on most of our minds. Even in the midst of our grief, we would all be lying if we weren’t thinking about what came next. Nathan simply gave voice to what everyone else was wondering.
By this time Gideon had already come on as our interim teaching pastor, and we all loved him. He was thoughtful, energetic, and carried to us a feeling of buoyancy and hope. He knew Kyle, and was grieving with us, but at the same time was enough of an outsider to bring a detached empathy to our situation.
Ben and David responded to Nathan’s question by saying they believed things were going well with Gideon coming in and preaching each week, and that the daily operations of the church were being taken care of ably by the current staff. They told us there was a strong feeling of community and a sense of positive momentum, and that there was no need to rush the hiring of a new, permanent teaching pastor. This was enough for us, and was received even better when we were given the assurance that the church would be informed about any new developments.
We went through the first half of 2006 like this, assuming we were in a holding pattern, and that we would receive word from the Leadership Team when we were ready to begin moving forward again. In truth, we had already been moving, on multiple levels. One of those levels was during our worship times. Some of us were becoming uneasy with something that was happening, or, rather, wasn’t happening, and it was only years later when we found the courage to say something about it. At the time, each of us thought we were the only ones to notice or be concerned, so we chose to keep it to ourselves, believing we were being strange or selfish or overly sensitive.
Our problem was that during worship, we stopped talking about Kyle and his death. And this happened quickly. Very quickly. It seemed that once we moved from meeting at Truett seminary (where we were for only a week or two) to the Hippodrome, the name “Kyle” was off limits. The only people who even gave mention to what had happened from stage were some of the Emerging Church leaders who would preach at UBC from time to time during the year after October 2005.
I recognize now how complicated an issue this was for those involved in planning our worshipping times together. The worship of God is the worship of God, and when we insert any other person or thing in the mix (country, academic and social loyalties, memories of the deceased, etc.,) we come very close to idolatry. But this never stopped us from cheering “Sic ‘Em Bears!” from stage, or honoring mothers on Mother’s Day, so I find it hard to believe that idolatry was a consideration in leaving Kyle and our mourning out of corporate worship times.
I also know there is a dilemma concerning what it means to “move forward” as a church after a tragedy. I believe this was probably what was really going on in removing from our times together any mention of Kyle and what had happened . I think there was a feeling from the church leadership that, though we were all grieving on a personal level, corporately we needed to find a way to turn a corner, and their instincts (I don’t believe it was a conscious choice) told them that continuing to bring up what had happened would be an impediment to “moving forward.”
But our friend had died right in front of us, and we needed more than a funeral and a Sunday in which we read his final sermon to help us tend to God in the midst of what we had seen and were experiencing.
We were starting to move forward on another level as well. Decisions were being made behind the scenes about the building and, later, about hiring new staff. There was really nothing new about the way things were being done. It had always been the pastoral staff and Leadership Team who were a part of these conversations and, frankly, none of us really cared what they did or how they did it. But now it was starting to matter more. Before, there was really nothing at stake. We worshipped on Sunday mornings, had a few small groups that met during the week, and that was pretty much church for us. But now, the decisions being made were affecting our identity and our future, and some of us were beginning to actually care about both.
We returned to the church building at 17th and Dutton on Sunday, July 16, 2006. It was an emotional service filled with both laughter and ache. The sanctuary we returned to, in many ways, looked the same. Aside from the glass, storefront entry being replaced by large, distressed brown wooden doors, the front of the building and hallways, art and all, remained pretty much the way they were before. In the backside, the drop ceiling was removed and the new room was much more conducive to having large events rather than small dinners. And, due to city code restrictions, the commercial kitchen was minimized into a catering kitchen.
Around the perimeter of the interior of the building, all our Sunday School and children’s rooms received a complete overhaul, and a game room complete with a ping pong table and two upright arcade games were placed in what we had previously called the “checker board room.” (The floor tiles were painted in alternating colors.) One of the “new” rooms had a zebra print carpet, a wrap-around seating area made of velvet cushion, and walls covered with pictures of The Ramones, Zeppelin and the Beatles, and psychedelic lamps hanging from the ceiling in two corners of the room. This room became known as the “Rock and Roll Room.” Another room had an Asian feel.—Oriental patterned textile wall covering, patterned cushions on the wraparound seating area, and a serenity fountain that ran when plugged in. David’s office, which had previously been, basically, a glorified closet, was transformed into a nice lounge area with a piano and television screen on the wall. All the design was the work of Toni, David’s wife, who is every bit as gifted at creating stunningly beautiful spaces as David is at recording and performing music.
For me, walking into the sanctuary on that first Sunday was difficult. I was distressed by something that I could never quite put my finger on until years later, when speaking to my friend Nancy, who experienced the same feeling.
The baptistery was gone.
In it’s place was, well, nothing. Just a big panel of plywood, painted blue and sticking out from where the brick and mortar baptism pool had once been. It seemed, as Nancy would put it so well later, that we were visually trying to do what we had succeeded in doing in our worship times together— placing out of sight and mind any reminder of Kyle and what had happened in that place.
What most disturbed me, I suppose, was not the remodeled building. Aside from the big covered up scar on the stage, there’s nothing I could or would have done differently, and I certainly could not have done it better than how it was done. And I can’t even say what I would have done about the baptistery either. How do you create something that honors the legacy of someone, in such a central space of worship, without it becoming idolatrous? (I’m definitely not suggesting that an image of Kyle in that space would have been appropriate. But some kind of religious imagery that reminds us that there is pain in the world, but that God is the comforter, could have been helpful.) What irked me the most was that all of this was done without guidance or input from anyone (save those on Leadership Team) who was a part of the ongoing life of UBC.
Most of us had grown up Baptist, or some other free-church tradition, and were accustomed to a system where the congregation has some level of a voice in making large decisions about what to do with the church’s building and assets. Of course this does lend itself to the stories, both apocryphal and documented, of churches splitting in two (or three, or four) over what color carpet will be placed in the sanctuary. Giving everyone a voice can spiral into a complicated web of “who decides what?,” but one thing that is not lost in these churches is a sense of ownership and mutual deference between the leadership and other members of the congregation.
The changes made to the visual aspects of our building, though phenomenal, were, for many of us, one of the first instances where we realized things were happening that we were going to be kept in the dark about.
A building and how it is decorated is one thing. I’ve been witness to enough of the aforementioned silliness caused by too much congregational voice with regards to aesthetics that it probably would have remained a minor annoyance to me, had it not been shown, just a few days later, to be small compared to other important decisions that were made without any knowledge or input from anyone, outside the Leadership Team.