The headline in the East Bay Times read, “Relax, Oakland … Gerald the turkey has been captured.”
It was big news. Gerald, a wild turkey, had taken up residence in Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden.
His aggressive, bullying behavior toward garden visitors had forced the closure of the eight-acre park not far from Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, where I serve as pastor.
Agencies like the Oakland Parks Department, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oakland Animal Services debated what to do.
Some thought he should be trapped although he proved adept at avoiding capture. Others thought he should be killed although that seemed a punishment more extreme than the crime.
Finally, in late October, Rebecca Dmytryk, director of Wildlife Emergency Services, got Gerald’s attention with some of his favorite food (sunflower seeds and blueberries) and pretended to be an older woman. Predictably, Gerald, notorious for his aggressive behavior toward those he perceived to be weak and fearful, came closer.
Dmytryk grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and wrapped her arms around him. With the assistance of her husband, they got him into a large carrier.
Fish and wildlife officials then took Gerald to the hills of Orinda, where wild turkeys thrive, tagged him and released him.
Dmytrk said the whole episode could have been avoided if human beings would have refrained from feeding wildlife, in this case, Gerald. It is a good lesson.
Perhaps there is another lesson. For those of us who spend our time in religious communities like churches, the behaviors exhibited by Gerald – aggression, bullying, demanding, targeting those perceived to be weak – are far from unfamiliar.
Let’s commit to stop rewarding Geraldish behavior. If you act like Gerald, you don’t get attention. If you act like Gerald, you don’t get to be chair of the committee. If you act like Gerald, you don’t get to share your opinion. If you act like Gerald, you don’t deserve to be the pastor.
Perhaps there is still one more lesson. Let those of us who lead and represent religious communities commit not to be Geralds ourselves.
Let’s not seek to get our way by bullying. Let’s not attempt to advance our personal agendas at the expense of the well-being of the community. Let’s not be noticeably more aggressive toward those we perceive to be weak and fearful.
An important, yet often misunderstood, teaching of Jesus is found in Matthew 5:5. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
Maybe the best way to translate this verse is, “Those that refuse to act like Gerald will be truly happy. People will respect them, appreciate them and maybe even listen to them like their words matter. Doors all around the world will be open to them.”
Senior pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989, and a board member of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).