Worship Service Held in Broomall, Pa.
“It just feels like there is a shadow of horror over everything,” Pastor Norman Viss said on the day he learned that a former pastor at his church in Broomall, Pa., had confessed to the murder of an eight-year-old girl in the town nearly 50 years ago. A special worship service was held a few days later to help the community process this news.
Viss is a bivocational commissioned pastor who has served at Trinity CRC in Broomall for eight years. He recalled that he learned about the 1975 murder of Gretchen Harrington soon after he arrived. People living in Broomall who were around at the time said that the kidnapping and murder had changed their community (which was built in the 1960s to provide a safe place to raise children), making parents more cautious and preventing children from being allowed to walk alone.
The story lived on in the community, and yet the tragedy was not something that was regularly talked about in the congregation of about 40 members. That changed on Monday, July 24, 2023, when news broke that a former pastor of Trinity, David G. Zandstra, had confessed to and had been arrested for the crime.
“How do you even begin to process something like that with a congregation?” Viss wondered.
A handful of members in the congregation had been around during the time of the murder, but most had not. While they didn’t have personal memories of Harrington or of the search for her body, the fact that the crime had happened in their community, and by a ministry leader the church had trusted, brought many emotions to the surface. In addition, reporters had camped out on the church property to film the building and the parsonage where Zandstra had lived – and where Viss now resides.
“This is not a situation that seminary trains you for,” said Viss.
Viss reached out to Katie Roelofs, a commissioned pastor based in Washington, D.C., who works for Thrive in the area of worship ministry. The two knew each other from Classis Hackensack meetings and also had a family connection. Katie’s husband is from Broomall. Viss asked Roelofs for advice, and she agreed to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the church on Sunday to help lead worship.
“I spent time during the week teasing out the difference between grief and lament in this context,” said Roelofs. “There was a need for both, and they needed to be distinct. Grief – naming up front at the very start of the service the loss of life, the abuse, the betrayal, the loss – that calls for naming the physical.”
Lament, Roelofs went on to explain, “comes in naming our spiritual response to the pervasive problem of evil that we stare in the face in this very moment. Even though very few were present who were actually there at the time Zandstra pastored, there's a need to lament broken systems that we all participate in and that allow evil to persist. That's not an ‘out there problem.’ It's our problem too, and it affects us all.”
Working together, Viss and Roelofs planned a service of grief and lament for Trinity CRC during their regular Sunday worship time.
“About 25 people came to the service in person, with several others joining online,” said Viss. “We were unsure if the media or members of the public might also be present, so we had prepared ourselves for what to do if they came, but that ended up not being an issue.”
During his sermon, Viss commiserated with the congregation about how difficult it is to understand how such a horrible thing could have happened.
“There is no way to explain this; there’s no answer that will neatly tie up the loose ends; but that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can say,” he said.
Viss shared several verses from Colossians 1, noting that the apostle Paul found hope in the face of evil during his time of persecution by resting in the knowledge that God is in Jesus, reconciling all things to himself, making peace through the blood of the cross.
“Today we look evil in the face. We see the face of eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington, picked up one summer morning on her way to vacation Bible school by a trusted family friend. We are silent as we think of the fear she must have felt as she realized what was happening to her. We wonder at the tortured mind and heart of a man who proclaimed himself a man of God but was capable of a horrific evil, hypocrisy, and duplicitousness that lasted decades.
“We grieve with the young ladies subjected to abuse right in the house behind me. We think back to the community of that time, unable, perhaps unwilling, to recognize abuse and to fight for the protection of the community, especially the young ones. We recognize a Christian system in which this kind of evil can happen and be covered up. And we tremble.
“Then we look up and we see the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, with the train of his robe filling the temple, as Isaiah did,” said Viss, referring to Isaiah 6:1-8.
“We hear the voice calling: ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go?’ And with our charred lips we answer, perhaps very softly, with a broken heart and trembling knees, not knowing how, what, or where: ‘Send me.’”
Roelofs also led the congregation in a special prayer for Harrington’s family, Zandstra and his family, the Broomall community, and Trinity CRC.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. But we look in front of us, and we see a darkness that is far reaching – not only touching us here but consuming families, other faith communities, other victims of past trauma. Sometimes it is hard to know what to say and how to pray. In this time of prayer we’ll be offering ample time for silence and silent prayer, trusting that God hears our prayers – spoken and unspoken – and that God receives the cries of our hearts however they are uttered,” she said to open the prayer.
The service was held with members sitting around round tables. Attendees were encouraged to talk to each other about how they were feeling.
“One of our members who had known Zandstra as a teenager here came up spontaneously at the end of the service. He had been involved in the search for Gretchen in 1975. He remembers Zandstra preaching the following Sunday,” said Viss. “He expressed gratitude that a totally different kind of service could be held today, after 48 years. It was pretty moving.”
The mood was quiet, reflective, and sorrowful.
“I think, for many, tears were close to the surface and spilled over at the end of the service,” said Viss.
And yet there was a spirit of hope as well.
“As I was playing the prelude, I was looking around the sanctuary – the original stone pillars, the original front of the sanctuary, the beautiful big windows facing Lawrence Street, giving visibility into the space to the whole community,” said Roelofs. “I saw my husband and kids, in conversation with a couple whose son was a grade younger than he was, growing up. They had shared catechism classes and had climbed the tree outside after church. This was the church Brian was born and raised in until he left for college.
“So the first words out of my mouth Sunday were ‘Thank you’ – not what I’d expected to say at all but what came out. ‘Thank you, Trinity CRC, for being a church home that has been faith formative and faithful. Yes, there has been great and horrible tragedy here, but that does not mean that God has not been faithful in you, through you, and with you. And this is a time we are grateful for God's faithfulness, because in the face of something as horrific as this, that is what grounds us and gives voice to our grief and lament.”