Beyond the horror 

Other churches, but not all, have been able to thrive again after enduring tragedies

click to enlarge The tragedies caused by Matthew Murray dominated the state's headlines this week. - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • The tragedies caused by Matthew Murray dominated the state's headlines this week.

In 1999, two weeks after a gunman killed seven people at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, a man with a shaved head and fearsome tattoos stopped by during a service.

Everyone started shaking, remembers senior pastor Al Meredith. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when the stranger left minutes later.

A week later, the man came back, and so did the fear. It only subsided in later visits, as the congregation got to know him.

"He was an ex-con hoping to find the Lord," Meredith says.

The pastor eventually baptized him.

"If we profiled so-called "dangerous people' at the door, why, we'd have turned him away," Meredith says. "And those are the very people we're trying to reach."

Churches thrive when they embrace new members, but throwing the potential of violence into that mix can cause self-preservation to trump the goal of spreading eternal salvation.

Other emotions can be equally destructive, Meredith says. He was warned that many churches "flounder" after violence intrudes, with some members wanting to confront what happened, and others wanting to just move beyond it.

These are just a couple challenges that New Life Church faces following the murder of two teenage sisters, and the wounding of three other congregants, on Sunday.

Research lacking

For years, according to pastor Brady Boyd, New Life has staffed services with volunteer guards, many of them armed.

While some cringe at the idea of weapons in church, many say that precaution saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives this week when Matthew Murray started blasting his way through the church interior.

Jeanne Assam, a former Minneapolis police officer who attends the church, shot the 24-year-old multiple times before he killed himself on the church floor.

William Bourns, a criminologist at California State University, Stanislaus, started looking five years ago at how vulnerable churches are to such attacks. He and a colleague surveyed dozens of institutions; many responding pastors perceived increasing levels of violence in churches, but had not yet formed plans about what to do if an attack happened.

But Bourns says he does not know of any research looking specifically at what happens to churches after they experience an attack. The country's school shootings have attracted far more research, and Bourns suggests only loose parallels: In both cases, the killer often seems to have some connection to the place attacked.

That was true on March 12, 2005, in Brookfield, Wis., when a 44-year-old man opened fire on fellow parishioners at a Living Church of God service, killing seven and then himself.

J. Davy Crockett III, director of business operations for Living Church of God, which has more than 200 congregations in the U.S. and abroad, says the killer in Brookfield was generally considered quiet and a "little different" by those who knew him.

The official ruling after the shooting was that the man had a mental condition disposing him to commit violence, Crockett explains.

The tragedy there did not destroy the congregation, he says; numbers have held around 40 members both before and after.

Some churches offer a greater puzzle regarding how members responded to tragedy, with the main clues coming from sad news stories still on the Internet. Five died in a 2005 shooting at a church in the east Texas town of Sash; the church's phone number has since been disconnected. No listing could be found for a Baton Rouge, La., church where a man murdered four people as he abducted his wife, whom he killed later.

New Life's flock numbers around 10,000, and in the moments after Sunday's shootings, members already were talking about persevering. Of course, they've already proven once that they can persevere; they're among thousands who've continued to attend services even after the 2006 scandal over founding pastor Ted Haggard's involvement with a male prostitute.

Growing stronger

Some might be hoping New Life follows in the path of Wedgwood, where the congregation actually has grown by about 50 percent since the Sept. 15, 1999, shooting. Its membership now approaches 3,000, Meredith says.

Meredith adds that growth is tied partly to the added visibility as people looked at the church after the shootings. Parishioners, at the same time, held on to each other. And since the shooter killed himself, there were no painful court proceedings for all to endure.

Since Murray's dead, of course, there will not be any lengthy court process for New Life attendees.

But there was another factor, Meredith suggests, that helped his congregants heal: Nobody could ever find any connection between the attacker and the church. In New Life's case, theories already abound as to why Murray drove to the Springs, backpack full of bullets, after killing two at Youth With a Mission school in Arvada hours before.


Other church shootings

Sept. 15, 1999 A gunman fatally shoots seven during a youth service at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, before killing himself.

March 14, 2002 A man kills a priest and a parishioner at Our Lady of Peace, Lynbrook, N.Y.

Oct. 5, 2003 A woman kills her pastor, her mother and then herself at Turner Monumental AME Church in Atlanta.

March 12, 2005 Seven people are fatally shot at a Living Church of God service in Brookfield, Wis., before the gunman kills himself.

May 21, 2006 A man kills four at the Ministry of Jesus Christ Church in Baton Rouge, La., then abducts his wife and kills her elsewhere.


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