A funny thing happened at church while we were on vacation. They lost one of our kids. Yup, you read that right. We dropped him off at the children’s area and when the service was over, he wasn’t where we had left him, nor did anyone seem to have a clue where he was.
So, let me start from the beginning. For pastors, it’s not often that they get a chance to visit other churches. It’s actually something that I want to incorporate into my schedule on a more consistent basis, but overall, it just doesn’t happen that often. It especially doesn’t happen with new and different places that we have not experienced before. Usually, we attend the churches our families or friends go to while we are visiting them, we don’t often go to places where we’ve never been.
With that in mind, as we drove to the place where we were staying that Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, we were on the lookout for places where we might consider going to worship the following morning. As we drew closer to our destination, we spotted a larger church that seemed like it might be a good fit. Once we got to the house where we were staying, I went to the church website and got some pertinent information and we agreed that we would check it out the next day.
We arrived a little bit early and came to the children’s area where there was a check-in desk. It seemed to be fairly secure as the children were all registered and given name tags. We also, as the parents, were given name tags so that they would be sure to allow us back into this area later when it was time to pick up our children. My daughter, who is the youngest, has been experiencing some separation anxiety whenever my wife leaves, so we thought it best to just keep her with us. My oldest son would come into the service with us and leave midway to go to a special program.
So, I tried to drop off my younger son, the middle child. I walked into the classroom with him but he couldn’t be convinced that it was a good idea for him to stay. This wasn’t going exactly as I had hoped and planned. We rushed into the auditorium and found a set of chairs in the back so that we could make a quick escape should we have any issues with the kids. A little way into the service, my daughter started fussing and I took her out into the foyer where there were audio and video feeds.
Not too long after that, the doors of the auditorium opened and a steady stream of children and parents came rushing out. I watched my wife take my boys. A few minutes later, she returned and let me know that the boys were together and would stay together until we picked them up. We settled in and did our best to pay attention to the rest of the service, but my daughter was not so content to simply be held or stay in a stroller.
As time rolled on, it seemed that we were fighting a losing battle and the service was drawing to a close. We decided to get a jump on things and pick up our boys early. So, we got through all security measures to get back into the children’s area and I followed my wife to the room where she dropped our boys off. As we walked into the room, we saw our oldest, but our youngest was nowhere to be found. We asked our older son where his brother was to which he replied, “I dunno.” Well, did he know where he was? No. Did you see where he went? No.
Uhhhhhh. We went to the teacher who did not know where our son was either. At this point, my wife exits the room with my oldest son and scans the crowds for a familiar face, particularly the person who had been responsible for our boys when she dropped them off. The maternal instinct of some of the other children’s workers kicked in and they could sense that there was a mother who was concerned. As they saw the concerned look on the face of my wife, they asked if they could help. As the story was unfolded to them, they began heading off in every direction, seeking someone who could locate our son.
By now it’s been about 10 or 15 minutes which, when you are full of anxiety bordering on panic, seems like an eternity. I was experiencing a whole onslaught of emotions, not the least of which was anger. Divinely, my salivary glands seemed to have gone completely dry, ensuring that I was not able to say anything, which for anyone who knows me, probably was a good thing.
I went into every single room in the children’s area in search of my son while my wife kept my other two children and constantly told the next person who came her way what we were looking for. At one point, I looked at my wife and mouthed the words, “Keystone Cops.” I was doing my best to keep a positive perspective in the midst of this. Fortunately for me, I did not stop anywhere long enough to engage in conversation with anyone. Unfortunately for my wife, she did. So, she heard the endlessly long list of stupid things that people say to you when you are in the midst of a moment of panic. She heard comments like, “This has never happened before” and, “He can’t have gone far” and better yet, “He has to be safe.” While those things may all have been true, they were definitely not what she needed to hear at the moment.
Meanwhile, I went back towards the auditorium to see if I caught a glimpse of my son. I scanned the crowds to no avail. As I headed back towards the children’s area, I noticed a single door just outside of the children’s area. As I approached, I heard the sound of children inside. As I came closer to the door, I looked through the window and caught a glimpse of my son on the window sill, surrounded by girls, and looking outside at the pouring rain. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
I called his name and he ran to me. That embrace can’t be described by thousands of words. I looked up at the teacher and told her that we had been looking everywhere for him. She said that he had been there the whole time. Well, thank you, Captain Obvious, so glad that you let the rest of the world know that as well. Chalk it up to one more comment that would have been better left unspoken.
I picked my son up and walked out the door to find the rest of my family. Turns out they put my 3 year old in a First and Second Grade class. Not quite sure how that happened, and neither was he. As I approached them, I could see the relief in my wife’s eyes. As we were all reunited, we quickly began making our way towards the exit as some of the children’s workers followed us, attempting to do “damage control.” To be honest, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Pretty crummy way to start our vacation, but we were grateful that our child had only been misplaced for a time. While it may seem insignificant to most people, it was a pretty big deal to us in the 25-30 minutes that we were searching for our son. It certainly felt like an eternity and I can’t even begin to imagine how parents feel who lose their children public places. It certainly left me anxious and agitated for the rest of the week every time that we went out into a public place with lots of kids like the beach or an amusement park.
The Wednesday following this Sunday, I got a phone call on my cell phone. It was the associate pastor from the church. I think the senior pastor must have been on vacation because this associate pastor was the one who had preached while we were there. He called to apologize and see how everyone was doing. I expressed my appreciation for his concern and he told me that they were taking the incident as an opportunity for a learning experience. I said that I was going to do the same. I assured him that we were not in danger of being turned off to God because of the experience, though I did let him know that I was thankful that it happened to us and not someone who was simply coming to check out the church for the first time.
Not sure if we will find our way back to that church in the future. I am a firm believer in grace, but I also believe that first impressions go a long way. While I don’t hold any bitter feelings, I don’t know that I would easily go back to a place where my child seemingly disappeared for half an hour.
The afternoon after the incident, we made our way through the torrential rain to our destination which was Plan B for us. We were incredibly grateful to be together as a family, despite the rain. All afternoon, my 3 year old continued to say, “Why did they put me in First Grade?” We just kept reassuring him that it wasn’t his fault. Finally, after about the 10th time of him asking the question, his 5 year old brother looked over at him and said, “Well, that’s the mystery, isn’t it?” Yup, buddy, that sure is the mystery!