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FIRST PERSON: Santee pastor recalls a different kind of earthquake hitting town

SANTEE, Calif. (BP)–On my first visit to Southern California, a church family in Huntington Beach hosted me while we were on a mission trip. One morning at around 7 a.m., I awoke to the noise of the handles on the dresser drawers rattling. I knew something strange was happening, like a sequel to “The Exorcist,” or else we were having an earthquake. We were having an earthquake.

A few years later I moved to San Diego to pastor a new mission church. We in Southern California live with an underlying dread that at any time there could be an earthquake. Monday morning, Mar. 5 at 9:22 a.m. we had an earthquake of a different kind. The epicenter of that quake was in the heart of town at Santana High School.

For me, the unexpected tremors of this quake were first felt Monday morning, my usual day off. I was in Sunday recovery, having a cup of coffee and reading my Bible on our back patio. I began hearing sirens, which is not unusual … but then another and another. As a volunteer chaplain for the sheriff’s department, I began to wonder if the phone would ring. I went inside to call someone but the phone was already ringing.

Living only blocks away, I arrived on campus minutes after the shooting. The first victims I saw were both regular attenders of our student ministry. I assisted medically with a few victims and helped evacuate others. I then ventured further into the campus that looked like a war zone.

Crossing over to the grocery store parking lot where students were being evacuated, I saw many crying, confused kids and parents searching for one another. I was assigned to a fast food restaurant where parents who couldn’t find their kids were told to wait. Some were hysterical, others crying uncontrollably. I was present when one family was notified that their son had been killed.

I asked them if they had a pastor they’d like me to call, but they answered no. My chaplain supervisor asked me to accompany them home and be with them for a while. My role began to shift from chaplain to pastor. In the days that followed I walked with them through a trip to the coroner’s office, funeral planning, media interviews, the community memorial service, the funeral and graveside service. We’ve become friends, hopefully for eternity.

Our community has been deeply shaken by this tragedy. Monday evening several churches held services where hundreds gathered on short notice to pray, worship and pull together. I shared with our church that we were called to be a “spiritual hospital” to help heal the wounds of a rattled community with the love of Jesus Christ. Our adults and students have strongly supported one another as we begin the long rebuilding process with counseling, debriefing and much prayer.

I called Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, who weathered the tragedy of a gunman who entered their church in September 1999 during a youth service, killing seven. Along with support and solid biblical advice, their church sent Allan and Laurie Jackson and three students who spent several days sharing with us how they endured and what God taught them. Their testimony and tears along with the prayer and support of many have helped us deeply.

I believe God is making Himself known in new ways in this community. A few days after the shooting I saw Bible verses posted near the restroom where the shooting occurred. We give thanks to God who has been so faithful to sustain us and help us “give comfort from the comfort that we have received.”
Editor’s Note: Herrington is pastor of Pathways Community Church and serves as a chaplain for the San Diego Sheriff’s Dept.

    About the Author

  • Phil Herrington