By Marla Bieber Abe
As I stopped at the church building in Lynchburg, Va., to drop off some supplies from the church picnic, I saw two cars in the parking lot. The church doesn’t allow unauthorized parking, so I started to call the police. But before I got to the phone, police stepped out of the cars. They told me they wanted to know about any homeless men who had been staying in the woods behind the church building. As far as the church knew, we did not own the woods, but had had some contact with some men who might have been staying there. One man had been quite friendly and helpful, and accepted some ice and water and food from church people.
Please pray… For the loved ones, friends, and community, including the Lynchburg congregation, who are grieving the death of Gary Farrar.
The officers informed me that there had been a murder/suicide nearby in the woods and said to tell the congregation the woods were now a crime scene. Over the course of that day the story began to unfold: Fire fighters had been called that previous night to find a man on fire. He died that day, and his name was Gary Farrar. He was not the man we knew well. Earlier that week, neighbors had said some people were in the woods and had been arrested.
There was not much we could do as a church, as we had no ownership or control over that area, but we recognized that there was a sense of lack of safety and we grieved over this tragic event that took place near our building. Later, after an investigation, we found we did own a small piece of that woods, and the incident may have happened on our church land.
We discussed as a church what to do and decided to hold a “Grieving Service” for Mr. Farrar. The TV news media found out and interviewed us, and two different groups came to tape parts of the service. The community response to holding the service was very positive. Mr. Farrar’s brother called to thank us for holding this time for his brother. A lifelong friend of Mr. Farrar called and said, “I was raised Baptist, but you, you are true Christians.”
Only two people from the community came to the service along with our members. One woman said she had grown up on our street and her son was close in age to the dead man and she was glad his tragic death was not being ignored. The other felt the community should grieve with this loss.
Since that time, we have seen pictures of the man who died, and we realized that he had visited our church building several times, mainly talking to me as pastor. He said he lived in the neighborhood, but when we walked back in the woods there was clearly a campsite where he and others had been living. There is a badly burned cot there, but the police said that was from a previous fire. We have talked to the company who owns the majority of the woods, but they do not seem concerned about the camping. It has brought our church into some conversations about homelessness. We are not a downtown church, but we are located behind a mall, a large store, and various other businesses, with duplexes on the other side.
At this writing, an autopsy has yet to be performed and we know little else. But we do know this: that in a time of tragedy close to us, we tried to do what Jesus would do–share the healing and pain of our neighborhood.
— Marla Bieber Abe pastors Lynchburg (Va.) Church of the Brethren.
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