NORTH WALES, Pa. (BP) — Investigators are seeking to determine whether a fatal shooting yesterday (April 24) during a worship service at a Philadelphia-area Southern Baptist church was “justified under the law,” according to media reports.
Keystone Fellowship Church, a congregation with four campuses in the Philadelphia area, confirmed on Facebook that “one man was shot and another is being questioned by police” regarding an incident that occurred during the 11 a.m. worship service at its Montgomeryville campus in North Wales, Pa. The victim, 27-year-old Robert Braxton, died less than an hour later at an area hospital, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Both men involved were church members, and the incident occurred in an aisle between the front and back sections of the congregation’s worship center, Montgomery County, Pa., district attorney Kevin Steele’s office told Baptist Press. The shooting took place as worshipers sang a hymn, The Inquirer reported.
The shooter, whose name has not been released, was not taken into custody and is cooperating with police, according to The Inquirer. Steele’s office said the shooter was licensed to carry a concealed handgun but was not a law enforcement official.
Pastor John Cope told the congregation in an April 25 letter obtained by BP, “Words can never convey the sorrow we are feeling in light of the tragic shooting at our Montgomeryville campus on Sunday, April 24. My heart is deeply burdened for the two families whose lives were changed in an instant, and for our church family individually and collectively as we grapple with the shock and pain of it all. We need healing. We need the peace and comfort of God like never before.”
In an April 24 Facebook post, the congregation said it is “deeply grieved,” “shocked” and “heartbroken over what took place.” The post added, “Our congregation is in prayer for everyone involved.”
The shooter was injured during his altercation with Braxton and also was taken to the hospital, The Inquirer reported. There were at least two dozen witnesses among the hundreds of worshipers present, according to Philadelphia’s NBC10 news channel.
Steele told reporters April 24 the incident “was a disturbance that escalated into an altercation between two church members.” Investigators, he said, are trying to “determine if the shooting was justified under the law.”
Jimmy Meeks, a Texas-based church security expert, told BP that regardless of whether the shooting proves to be justified legally, it is “a horrible thing.”
Keystone members should “rally around each other and love each other,” said Meeks, a retired Hurst, Texas, police officer who trains churches across the U.S. in proper security procedures through what he calls Sheepdog Seminars. “There’s going to be a lot of anxiety and tension in the congregation for a very long time. I’m sure they’ll increase their security.”
Keystone scheduled “a time for prayer and comfort” Monday, April 25 at 7 p.m. at its campus in Schwenksville, Pa., according to the church’s Facebook page. The congregation added, “We also want to extend our sincere thanks to the many police officers and first responders for their kind assistance in these very difficult circumstances.”
Cope, a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Great Commission Task Force in 2009-10, noted “that even though I am deeply saddened, I am also hopeful.”
He continued, “We serve a God who brings good out of the most tragic of circumstances, and I believe that we have an opportunity to unite as the body of Christ and overcome evil with good. Keystone has always been a church that loves God and loves people, not only with our words but with our actions.
“May the peace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ fill our hearts and minds in the days and weeks to come, and may we emerge from this tragedy stronger and more united than ever before,” Cope wrote.
Since 1999, there have been 626 violent deaths in U.S. houses of worship, according to statistics compiled by church security expert Carl Chinn. More deadly force incidents have occurred in Baptist churches during that timeframe than in churches of any other denomination, Chinn reported.