Waffle House

Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

As you would imagine, folks here in Tennessee are still talking about the Waffle House shootings, even though the national media -- this is the age in which we live -- have moved on to other gun-related stories.

Nevertheless, The Tennessean in Nashville produced a massive story the other day about the lives of the two almost-30 men at the heart of the story -- the hero, James Shaw, Jr., and the troubled gunman, Travis Reinking.

There is all kinds of religious material in this story, and that material was used in a way that raised all kinds of questions -- that the story didn't answer.

Believe it or not, in this case that's a compliment. Once again, we are headed into news territory defined by the theological word "theodicy."

Why does evil exist? Why do some people choose to do good, while others choose to do evil? Why does mental illness exist? Why do some people raised in Christian homes cling to that faith, when push comes to shove, while others fling the faith and lash out at others?

You'll ask all of those questions, and more, when you read this story: "One came to Waffle House to eat. One came to kill, police say. How two worlds collided."

Don't expect answers, especially not about Reinking and his family's years of struggles to understand and manage his mental illness -- which followed him like a cloud, even as his behavior in other parts of life seemed perfectly normal.

Let's start with Shaw, and church:

Nashville is Shaw's home.

He has attended Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church since he was an infant, the same iconic North Nashville church his mother attended as a girl.

The youngest of three Shaw children, and the only boy, he was fun-loving, quiet and respectful to adults. He became humbler as he got older.

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After the Waffle House shootings: It's hard to separate tragedy and faith in Bible Belt life

After the Waffle House shootings: It's hard to separate tragedy and faith in Bible Belt life

It's been a crazy week, in terms of religion-beat life. Thus, I have not had the time to address the media coverage of the Waffle House shooting in the Nashville area.

Yes, Tennesseans are still talking about that second tragedy in the Antioch area.

I have found it interesting that folks in this neck of the woods are talking more about James Shaw -- the 29-year-old hero in this drama -- than they are the young and very troubled man who did the shooting. Can we officially say that this is progress? Sad progress, but progress of some kind.

If you read through some of the coverage -- national and regional -- there is one quick religion angle to be covered in this story. However, I think there is another religion theme in this story that deserved coverage. Hold that thought.

First, care of Nashville Public Radio, the #DUH religion angle, from the Bible Belt point of view. The headline: "Waffle House Shooting Hero Goes From The Hospital To Church." Let's pick this up after the time-sensitive, newsy lede:

James Shaw was discharged from the hospital Sunday morning, freshly bandaged up from a bullet grazing his elbow and a burned hand from grabbing the smoking hot barrel of an AR-15. And where did he go?

"He didn't skip church to be laid up," Rev. Aaron Marble said, as he prayed over Shaw's family at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. "But instead [he] went through this experience and got to come to church to give God praise."

Still dressed in a slim-fitting khaki suit, turtle neck and tasseled loafers, the young father, who works for AT&T, spoke at a police press conference.

"If you would ask me, I'm actually not a greatly religious person," Shaw said. "But I know that in a tenth of a second, something was with me to run through that door and get the gun from him."

When talking about this with locals here in Oak Ridge, I have heard several people simply say: "Of course he went to church."

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Church gives away $100 bills; Waffle House workers get $3,500 tip; and more feel-good headlines

Church gives away $100 bills; Waffle House workers get $3,500 tip; and more feel-good headlines

Annual church giving tops $50 billion, according to one report.

The average Christian puts roughly $800 a year into the collection plate.

But that's dog-bites-man kind of news, meaning it's not really news. It's too routine. 

On the other hand, you know what makes for interesting stories? Churches giving away cash for members to go out and do good deeds, that's what. I like those kind of headlines, especially at Christmastime.

Enter Julie Zauzmer, religion writer for the Washington Post, with a feel-good report out of a Maryland suburb:

On the first Sunday of December, the Rev. Ron Foster invited his congregants to step up to the altar to receive the bread and wine of Communion — and to receive a $100 bill.
“Listen to where the Holy Spirit’s leading you,” he said to the stunned congregation as he distributed a stack of money at Severna Park United Methodist Church, located in a Maryland suburb. “Listen to the need that’s around you, that you find in the community. You may be in the right place at the right time to help somebody, because you have this in your hand.”
One hundred congregants walked out into the Advent season, with the money burning a hole in their pockets.
One stack of bills totaling $10,000, dropped off at the church by an anonymous donor, has turned into 100 good deeds in the Severna Park community this Christmas season.
Ginger ale and soup and warm socks for a cancer patient. Snow pants and gloves so a child with a brain tumor can play outside. Christmas presents for children who are homeless, for children whose parents are struggling with drug addiction, for children whose parents have suffered domestic abuse, for children in the hospital. Cash for dozens of grateful strangers, from waitresses to bus drivers to leaf collectors.
One hundred donations go a long way.

Amen.

The story notes that the donor — who asked to remain anonymous but granted an interview to the Post — "had heard about other communities, including her mother’s church in Texas, where everyone in the congregation was entrusted with money to distribute."

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New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

To put things in country-music terms, this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that) is about pain, sorrow, alcohol, divorce, blue-collar families, coffee, hard times, opioids and God.

Oh, and waffles.

If you don't live in Waffle House America, let me explain. We are talking about a chain -- in 25 states -- of old-school, Southern-style dinners that serve breakfast 24/7 and attract large numbers of workers and rural folks who don't work normal schedules.

If you want to laugh about the Waffle House world, you can listen to the country-fried tribute song by Stephen Colbert (a native of South Carolina) and alt-country star Sturgill Simpson, entitled, "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Knuckleheads."

But the podcast isn't really about laughter. It's about the complex issues that affect ministry to many hurting people in this slice of the American people.

My chat with host Todd Wilken focused on my "On Religion" column this week -- which is about a United Methodist pastor in Alabama who is doing some interesting things while trying the reach working-class people. His name is Pastor Gary Liederbach and he uses his local Waffle House as his unofficial office on weekday mornings.

This anecdote sets the tone:

One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner’s middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn’t see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular whom, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called “Chuck.”
When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud F-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.

 

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