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Churches enter a ‘whirlpool’ when random violence erupts

SAN ANTONIO (BP)–As Bruce Tippett unfolded the story of the tragedy at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark., his calm retelling was in sharp contrast to the horror of the March 24, 1998, act of random violence which left five dead and 10 injured.
Standing in the chapel at First Baptist Church, San Antonio, Texas, and speaking to participants at a conference on “The Church and Random Violence,” Tippett listed the events:
— March 24, 1998: Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, opened fire on classmates at Westside Middle School after one of them set off the fire alarm to lure teachers and classmates outside. Four students and a teacher died; a teacher and 10 students were wounded.
Moments later the boys were captured.
— March 31: 9,000 people attended a memorial service.
— August 11: A judge found the boys guilty of capital murder.
“An event the size of this tragedy is similar to being drawn in the vortex of a whirlpool,” he said. “There is no way to avoid it or not be drawn in by it.”
Three days after the tragedy, Tippett recounted that he was reading the One-Year Bible during his quiet time, and the day’s Scripture passage was Psalm 69.
“It was not difficult to identify with verses 1-3,” the pastor of First Baptist Church of Jonesboro said. Those verses talk of being engulfed in deep waters and sinking in the miry depths, of crying for help.
“Yet it was verse 4 that reached up and grabbed me,” he said, noting that the last part of the verse says, “I am forced to restore that which I did not steal.”
Without question, that is the position a church and its ministers find themselves in as they seek to respond to random violence, Tippett said, explaining that an act such as the one at Westside Middle School “is random, there is no cause and effect, and it was violence of unimaginable proportions.”
As the tragedy of Jonesboro unfolded, Tippett said the community and churches, including the one where he is pastor, were “thrust into the event for which you were not responsible but we were in a position to put back things we ourselves never took away.”
As the shootings occurred, Tippett said he went to the hospital, reacting because he had been trained to do disaster response previously. Teachers also reacted as they had been trained, using earthquake drills as a model.
“Training, regardless of its simulation, cannot really prepare you for the actual event. The event throws things at you that are unanticipated, such as the real emotions, the chaos, the confusion, the sounds and the lives.
“No amount of training prepares you for the feelings of grief, hurt and anger that arise when you see the faces of little girls who have been shot.”
In the aftermath of the chaos of the shootings, First Baptist Church has ”mainly sought to serve our members in an ongoing capacity,” Tippett said.
At the outset of the trial, he watched in frustration as the media trucks rolled up again. He felt helpless.
He called a representative of an organization offering ministry to those in crisis who suggested the church become a “compassion center.”
“It was to be a place where the families of the victims could go during the trial,” Tippett said, explaining the church was a block from the courthouse.
“We agreed we would provide lunch for the 125 members of the families, teachers and police. That was truly a gift for those families that day. They grieved, cried, laughed, hugged and were fed all they wanted in a place of refuge.
“We allowed no media nor did we permit any interviews. The response from those participating was truly gratifying,” he said.
He said when ministers and churches confront random violence — and he predicted that the issue is not “if” but “when” random violence will strike — they should “remember God.”
“God is a God who suffers with us and for us. Remember that God is in charge. Remember that you are only able to act in his strength and power. Remember that he is the one who ultimately restores what has been stolen.”
He illustrated how the riches of grace in Jesus Christ restore by telling of a visit he made to the school recently.
“After lunch, the kids got on stage to practice a song:
“Sometimes in your life we all have pain. We all have sorrow
“But if we are wise we know there’s always tomorrow
“Lean on me when you’re not strong
“I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on
“For it wont be long ‘til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on … .”
“The song illustrates the power of God to restore what has been stolen. The school children are leaning on God, who is restoring what has been stolen.”
The March 29 conference was sponsored jointly by the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ church/minister relations department, the LeaderCare ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and the San Antonio Baptist Association.

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  • Dan Martin