OCEAN CITY, Md. — The pastor of St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church died of injuries suffered early Tuesday after a man set himself ablaze in the building’s basement.
Witnesses said the fire started when a man set himself on fire and entered the food bank housed in the Ocean City church’s basement. That man also died, and a woman suffered life-threatening injuries.
The Rev. David A. Dingwall died at Atlantic General Hospital, according to the Rev. Canon Heather Cook of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton, Md.
The man who reportedly started the fire, a client of the food pantry, has not been identified by authorities. His body was at the scene late Tuesday, being reviewed by a medical examiner, city spokeswoman Jessica Waters said.
A woman whom police have not identified was first taken to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, then transferred to a burn unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, according to Ocean City Police spokeswoman Lindsay O’Neal.
“Whether it’s accidental or it’s criminal has not been determined at this time,” said Jessica Waters, a spokeswoman for Ocean City.
She said several witness statements have been taken, and authorities will take that into account as part of their investigation. Police urged the public to come forward with photo or video.
The fire reportedly began after someone ran into the church on fire, according to Cook.
“The fire started in the basement of the church offices in what’s called the Shepherd’s Crook food bank, where you can imagine they’ve been distributing a lot of food for the Thanksgiving holiday,” she said. “It’s a wooden church and it sounds like it caught fire very quickly.”
After arriving on the scene around 9:25 a.m., some first responders worked to control the fire while others placed the injured onto stretchers and ran them to nearby ambulances.
“Right now the church leaders are rather traumatized by this,” Cook said a few hours after the fire
A firefighter leans over the railing outside the entrance of St. Paul’s by the Sea church in Ocean City, Md., after a man lit himself on fire inside the church’s food bank. (Photo: Joe Lamberti, The Salisbury, Md., Daily Times)
On Friday morning while checking my Facebook page I came across some horrific news. Early on Thursday evening there were three shootings at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City. The parish’s Administrative Assistant, Brenda Brewington, was killed. As far as I know the co-rector, The Reverend Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn, remains in critical condition and on life support at Maryland Shock Trauma in Baltimore awaiting the harvesting of her organs for transplant, and Douglas Franklin Jones, believed to be the shooter,was found in the woods nearby…dead as the result of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
At the time no motive was known although rumors were circulating that the shooter was a mentally unbalanced homeless man who was known at the church. While my first thoughts were for the families of Ms Brewington…the well-being of the family and friends of the Reverend Kohn, the community of St. Peter’s and the entire Diocese of Maryland; I couldn’t help but think about the backlash that will occur if it turns out that it was a mentally ill homeless man who committed this evil act.
When an immigrant…legal or illegal…commits a crime we hear demands to close the borders completely and engage in mass deportations. When a parolee commits a violent crime we hear demands that in every criminal conviction we ought to “lock them up and throw away the key.” When a homeless person commits an atrocious act of violence…like appears to have happened in Ellicott City on Thursday evening… we are tempted to say that such people are not only all worthless…but that they are all dangerous and all dishonest and we ought to do as much as we can to keep them as far away from us as possible.
Such reactions are understandable…I have them myself. The same Thursday afternoon as the shooting I went to pick up Ian from his afterschool program where I learned that there had been an altercation in which another young boy had not only threatened to break Ian’s glasses…because of a lacrosse mishap…but also threatened to ‘Kill’ his mother. This boy is often described as being ‘A foster kid’ as a way of understanding why he acts the way that he does…. And believe me there is a part of me that wanted to insure that child is not only never near Ian again…but never near any other child in the program either. Setting aside the fact that I don’t have the power to do any such thing…it wouldn’t be the right thing to do if I did. Understandable? Maybe…. Right? Not at all.
It’s easy to say that we ‘respect the dignity of every human being’ …it’s not so easy to do when one of those human beings threatens the well-being of those you love. It’s even more difficult to do so when one of those human beings takes the lives of two sisters in Christ and shatters the life of a community of faith. But there are no caveats…
The Christian thing…the faithful thing…the right thing to do is to grieve for our loss…and make no mistake what happened in that church is our loss…to comfort those who are suffering…to prayerfully consider how we move forward…and to make sure that the forces of evil do not use our natural reactions to such a horrific act as a way to push us further into a fortress mentality. To resist the temptation to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves, and those we love, from the dangers…both real and imagined…of the world around us.
We do have a responsibility to make our communities as safe as possible…whether it is in our homes, our schools, our churches or anywhere else… because that is part of what it means to ‘respect the dignity of every human being’. But it is also our responsibility to do so in a way that doesn’t turn our communities into a series of armed encampments where we watch suspiciously for anyone who doesn’t act, look or think like us. Communities where those in need are shunned because we’re afraid of what they might do to us. It’s not an easy thing…but then again no one ever said that being a follower of Jesus was easy.
Philip was a first century follower of Jesus. One day…perhaps while minding his own business…Philip is spoken to by an angel of the LORD who says “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” The angel doesn’t say why…just that Philip is to get up do it. The author of the Book of Acts adds the information that “This is a wilderness road.”…meaning that it was likely a dangerous route. Does Philip ask why…does he appear to do anything to assure his own safety before he goes? No. According to the text Philip heard the message and “…he got up and went.” Just like that…he got up and went.
Now Philip encountered someone in need…not in material or physical need…but in spiritual need. The eunuch was a man of influence and privilege…but he was also a man who wanted to understand the scripture was reading…and Philip had been sent for precisely that purpose.
So Philip responded to that man’s need…teaching him the story of Jesus in a way that intrigued the Ethiopian so much that “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Of course the answer was nothing…and that day another soul was added to the number of disciples of Jesus Christ.
Now I am absolutely NOT suggesting that the shooting in Ellicott City happened because the Mr. Jones’ needs were not met. Even if the church there turned him away that is never an excuse for resorting to violence. What I am suggesting is that there is always risk when it comes to serving the community in the name of God.
I have had my life threatened because of my faith on a couple of occasions…once an irate man threatened to throw me off the top deck of a ferry into the Pacific Ocean on a dark winter night because of how he felt the church…my church… had treated his mother. Another man pointed a loaded crossbow at me because he believed the church had stolen money that rightfully belonged to his community. Here at St. Paul’s By-The-Sea I’ve been chased around the building by an angry, intoxicated woman because I didn’t have the money she wanted from me in order to pay her rent. On each of those occasions I was scared…I was tempted to respond in anger and maybe even violently…but in the end I was reminded that we are called to ‘Respect the dignity of every human being’…even the angry, scary, threatening ones.
Last week Ken MacMullin stood before the congregation and announced his ‘retirement’ from the day-to-day leadership of Shepherd’s Crook…our ministry to our neighbors in need. It caught me off guard…not because I didn’t know Ken wanted to retire…but because I didn’t know he was going to announce it then until shortly before he did it. Had I been better prepared I would have said something along these lines:
When I first came to Saint Paul’s By-The-Sea I met with Ken to learn about the Crook. He was telling me how it all came about because of an experience in which Ken heard a voice telling him to “Feed my people”. And to quote Ken: “And we’ve been doing it ever since.” Ken didn’t wonder if there was something wrong with his hearing, he didn’t ask how he was supposed to do this…or why him in the first place…he got up and he went. And as he got up and went things fell into place and the wonderful ministry known as Shepherd’s Crook came into being….
And that ministry will continue because it is doing God’s work…now it is being done under the leadership of Bruce Young…and sometime will into in the future …although it may look different…it will continue under the leadership of someone else.
Just last week I heard some news of one of my college roommates who is the priest of a congregation in Calgary Alberta. Right now he and a team from his congregation are on their second annual mission trip to Sierra Leone where they are working to build a school in a small community in that impoverished country. Now that is a mission…and I suspect there are some risks inherent in it. But those risks didn’t deter Stephen and his congregation…the risks of opening our doors to the community didn’t deter Ken and it won’t deter the ongoing ministry of Shepherd’s Crook.
Today I was going to focus on the third of The Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission…and I think I did. That ‘mark’ is: “To respond to human need by loving service’. I suspect that’s what the congregation of St. Peter’s Ellicott City was doing when they opened their doors to a man who ended up doing unspeakable violence to them. And I suspect that going forward they will do the same thing again…not because they are foolish or have a martyr complex…but because they are faithful. Because they, and we, and all of God’s people are called to be faithful to our Risen Lord…faithful to the one who was crucified before he was raised…the one who died before he was resurrected to new life… the one who leads us on that same path because it is the path of loving service. Amen.
Here is the ENS story re: Reverend Dingwall.