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Forgiveness, hope mark community after tragedy

TOWNVILLE, S.C. (BP) — When the alert sounded Sept. 28 from Kyle Caudell’s scanner of an active shooter at Townville Elementary School, his first thought was that it must be a drill. Because his daughter is a fifth-grader at the school, he was aware that teachers and students had practiced for exactly such a scenario only a week before.

Caudell, pastor of Double Springs Baptist Church in Townville, S.C., and a volunteer firefighter and fire department chaplain, jumped into his SUV and sped toward the school. When his phone lit up with a text from the Double Springs fire chief that read, “This is not a drill,” Caudell “went into prayer mode — a white-knuckled kind of prayer.” When he arrived at Townville Elementary, he found that his daughter was unharmed.

A 14-year-old gunman had been subdued outside the school by a fellow firefighter, but not before wounding a teacher and two first-graders. One of the students, Jacob Hall, later died from his injuries.

Caudell instinctively “put on [his] chaplain’s hat” and went to work comforting upset students. Many students knew Caudell because he is the school’s archery instructor. “I thought it was important that they see a familiar face,” he said. “I counseled them and prayed with them.”

He helped put students onto buses, where they were transported four miles away to Oakdale Baptist Church, the school’s designated “reunification site.” There, students were reunited with anxious parents.

When a teacher got off the bus, she recognized Oakdale Church members who serve as volunteers with the Good News Club at Townville Elementary School. Relieved to see familiar faces, the teacher said, “Now we can relax a little bit and breathe,” recalled David Blizzard, pastor at Oakdale.

That night, a Wednesday, Blizzard’s church and others in the community held prayer services for the shooting victims. Two of the injured, a teacher and a first-grader, were treated and released from the hospital within a few hours, but Jacob Hall, who had attended Oakdale Church with his grandparents all his life, lay in intensive care at Greenville Memorial Hospital.

The next day, Oakdale Baptist Church opened its doors as a counseling site for teachers, where Blizzard and other Townville ministers were available alongside mental health counselors from Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties. On Friday, the church was opened as a counseling site again, this time for students and parents.

The next day, Oct. 1, Jacob Hall died of his injuries. A community prayer service was held at Oakdale the following night, a Sunday.

“Jacob is the key in this whole thing, the ‘God story,'” said Blizzard, “because of his attitude of loving everybody.” Blizzard described the 6-year-old as “a kid who just soaked in the things of God.” Family members sometimes remarked that they thought Jacob might grow up to be a preacher, Blizzard said.

While Jacob was on life support, his mother told Blizzard her son would want people to forgive the boy who shot him and to “love him like Jesus loves him,” Blizzard said. Over the next few days, forgiveness was demonstrated in Blizzard’s church, where Jacob’s grandparents worship alongside the grandparents of Jesse Osborne, the alleged gunman.

“Both families have received each other very well,” Blizzard said. “The shooter’s family apologized over and over again, and the family [of Jacob Hall] received their apology.

“We as Christians have a language the world doesn’t understand,” Blizzard noted. “This is a testimony of what God has done and continues to do in our community.”

When teachers at Townville Elementary returned to the school on the Monday after the shooting, the community’s pastors were there to welcome them back and pray with them. Jim Crittendon, pastor of Townville Baptist Church, was among the pastors present at the school. A former career Southern Baptist missionary who specialized in ministry during crisis situations, Crittendon’s work prepared him to understand what to expect in the aftermath of the Townville shooting. He said teachers, students and first responders need a period of normalcy. “They need some rest right now,” he said.

Joanne Avery, superintendent for Anderson County School District 4, said Townville’s pastors “were with us every step of the way” in the hours and days after the shooting. “The moment it happened, they had their arms around us,” she said.

Avery said Townville’s pastors, including Kyle Caudell, were helpful in “controlling the chaos” at Oakdale Baptist Church in the first hours after the shooting as “frantic and hysterical” parents came to the church looking for their children.

Over the next few days, area churches “opened their doors and their hearts to us,” Avery said. “The community prayer service was so important because we all needed a place to pray, to acknowledge, to hug.”

Avery spoke of an “outpouring of love” from the Townville community. “It’s a very special place,” she said. “God was all over this incident in more ways than one.”

Caudell said “something special” is taking place in Townville. “I don’t know how to explain it other than the Spirit of God is moving over the community,” he said. “There are people who are interested in spiritual things for the first time. This event puts everything else in perspective.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, speaking at an Anderson University chapel service Oct. 12, said the forgiveness offered by Jacob Hall’s family reminded him of the sentiments expressed by family members after a gunman killed nine people in a Charleston church last year.

“If there is another shining example for this nation coming out of South Carolina, look at Townville,” Scott told a reporter for the Anderson Independent-Mail. “The community as a whole gelled around the crisis.”

Blizzard said he hopes the tragedy and the family’s response of grace will be used by God to reach people in his community. “That was the goal of the family and the whole church,” he said, “that the Lord would use it for His glory and to let the world know that Christians do things a different way.”