NORWOOD, Mo. (BP) — Days after churchgoers left their pews mid-sermon to tackle a gunman armed with a .357 magnum revolver, they returned to their seats at First Baptist Church in Norwood, Mo., for Bible study and to talk through the experience with chaplains.
Many were quiet at first, but by the end of the evening most of the 25 people present began to open up about the traumatic events of July 21 that left the congregation shaken but uninjured.
A man identified in court documents as Earnest J. Smith entered the church that Sunday morning and fired two shots — one into the ceiling and one at the floor between himself and the pastor — before being tackled and subdued.
The follow-up session opened with Psalm 46. Pastor Stephen Fugitt introduced the passage by reading what he’d written in his notes: Just read the Scripture, no need to comment.
“God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble. Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil.”
The church broke into groups with five Missouri Baptist Convention disaster relief chaplains.
They rehashed the order of events, recalling the doors at the back of the auditorium banging open and a gun blast long before anyone could figure out what was going on. With their ears still ringing 72 hours later, they debated whether they’d heard two shots or three.
(A recording of the church service suggests there were just two shots, though the bullet that tore a ragged gash in the carpet fragmented and put two holes in the wall a foot to the left of where Fugitt was standing.) They searched for the shot-through ceiling tile, eventually realizing it’d already been replaced.
They also thanked God that though there were several teenagers in the service that morning, most of the kids were in a different part of the church for children’s church and didn’t have to witness things firsthand. They praised the quick action of the five men who tackled the suspect.
They joked nervously about their jumpiness and a reluctance to sit with their backs facing the door. They also asked if there was anything they could have done differently.
In this case, it appears the best possible scenario played out: People were frightened and a suspect is behind bars, but no one was injured beyond one church member who cut his shoulder on a chair as he wrestled with the gunman.
Mike Dedmon, a lay chaplain from Elk Creek Baptist Church, came to help. “The gentleman I spoke with was at first very nervous,” Dedmon said, “but the longer we went the more he opened up and realized that God had used him last Sunday. I think he’s starting to have peace about it.”
Nancy Dedmon, Mike’s wife, spoke with the wife and the mother of two men who wrestled the gun away from the suspect.
“I think they’re seeing that God had everyone in the right place at the right time,” Nancy said.
“I saw some strength in these people,” Mike said. “Strength that only God can give.”
“I think they ministered to me just as much as I did to them,” Nancy said.
Church members asked for continued prayer to recover from the shock of the situation, and also that parents who don’t attend church themselves but allow their children to attend will continue to allow that.
“Pray that we can feel that church is a safe place again,” one woman said.
Brian Koonce is a staff writer with The Pathway (www.mbcpathway.com), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.