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God’s amazing graces shines through Wedgwood survivors

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–On Sept. 15, 1999, Larry Gene Ashbrook calmly walked into the foyer of the Wedgwood Baptist Church and began a bloody rampage that left seven people dead and seven others seriously wounded. The emotionally troubled loner ignited a pipe bomb and fired off 68 rounds of ammunition until he pointed a gun at his own head and pulled the trigger, ending his life.

It’s been more than a year since crime scene tape encircled the massive Wedgwood complex. Grieving families have buried their dead and the wounded healed. Carpets soaked with the blood of the innocent were taken away. Bullet-riddled pews were replaced and walls were patched. And a congregation of believers has begun to heal.

The story of what happened on the night of Sept. 15 is complex. But, at the same time, it is a story as simple as the gospel message, said Al Meredith, senior pastor of the 2,400-member church. The story of Wedgwood Baptist Church is a story about God’s grace, he said.

“Here is the message,” Meredith said during an interview in his sparse office. “God is in control and he loves us. That is a rock-bottom, foundational truth.

“God is faithful,” he said, reflecting on the past 12 months of ministry. “The steadfast love of the Lord never changes. No matter the pit, God’s love is deeper still.

“It sounds cheesy, but we endured this tragedy through the grace and the love of the Lord,” he said. “What else can you say? The fact of the matter, it was the Lord who gives grace. It was the Lord who was faithful. This was all about the Lord.”

The Wedgwood Baptist Church of today is not much different from the Wedgwood Baptist Church prior to Sept. 15. The church abounds with Spirit-filled worshipers who joyfully give praise to God during morning and evening services.

Last year, the congregation added 224 new members, 41 through baptism. Weekday Bible study groups are scattered throughout the city and men gather in the wee morning hours to fellowship over coffee and God’s Word at a nearby restaurant.

In other words, Meredith said, the work of the Lord continues, despite that terrible night when spiritual warfare came knocking on the church’s door and took the lives of seven believers — Kristi Beckel, Shawn Brown, Sydney Browning, Joey Ennis, Cassie Griffin, Kim Jones and Justin Ray.

Officially, the criminal case has been closed, according to Lt. David Burgess, the Fort Worth Police Department’s public information officer. “To be honest, we may never know why Larry Gene Ashbrook chose Wedgwood Baptist Church,” Burgess told Baptist Press. “But we know this was not a hate crime.

“He made some very sad comments about Baptists and religion but you have to take into account his mental condition,” Burgess added.

Burgess noted that Ashbrook’s siblings had described their 47-year-old brother as chronically jobless, a paranoid schizophrenic.

David and Tralissa Griffin said they believe there was a spiritual battle at work the night their daughter Cassie was murdered. “We’ve been asked about the political climate being the cause, gun control, everything,” Griffin said. “My feeling is you can’t legislate morality. Gun laws won’t keep this from happening again. The problem is the heart of man.”

Chip Gillette is a patrolman for the Fort Worth Police Department and a Sunday school teacher at Wedgwood. He and his wife Debbie, the pastor’s secretary, live directly across the street from the church. Gillette was the first law enforcement officer on the scene of the shooting.

His eyewitness account of the atmosphere inside the sanctuary moments after the shooting indicates that spiritual warfare had played a part in the massacre.

“It was an eerie feeling,” Gillette said. “For a moment there was this deafening silence. It was like walking into a holy place. It was like Satan had come into the very high place of God and God had slapped him out of there.”

For the Griffins, returning to the sanctuary where their daughter died was difficult.

“Spiritual warfare took place here and we chose to continue to worship here. If Satan had run us away, we would have lost the battle,” Griffin said.

“One thing is certain,” Meredith said. “Even in this particular manifestation of evil, the sovereign hand of God was over all things. There were 200 rounds of ammunition. We should have had hundreds of funerals.”

And to the families of those who lost children, spouses and relatives, Meredith said God has given the grace to embrace a new day.

Kathy Jo Brown is one believer who has experienced the power of God’s grace. Her husband, Shawn, a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was gunned down in a church hallway just outside the sanctuary.

“God is a God of provision,” Brown said. “He is a God who gave me the ability to get out of bed. It was a blessing to walk and not faint.”

The Browns worked with the youth at Wedgwood Baptist Church and her husband was studying to be a youth pastor. “He had such a heart and a passion for youth,” she said.

For Brown, the essence of God’s grace was evidenced during an evening worship service on Aug. 13.

“There was a boy in our Sunday school class and his father was not a Christian. Last August, Shawn and I took them to dinner and we began praying for him to accept Christ. And one year later, the father came forward and asked Jesus into his heart. Isn’t God just wonderful,” she said.

Jeff Laster, who is earning his way through seminary by working as a janitor at Wedgwood, was the first person shot by Ashbrook. Still under medication for his injuries, Laster said he was able to witness to a television news reporter through God’s grace.

Bill and Cathye Conditt have been members at Wedgwood for 28 years. Miss Cathye, as she is known to church members, arrives early every Sunday morning to take her post at the welcome table — where the violence first started. Sydney Browning, a children’s choir director at Wedgwood, was the first person killed, gunned down on a nearby couch.

“She was so special to us,” Miss Cathye said, recalling the young woman they had “adopted.”

“Whenever she came here, she would light up the world,” she said. “And she was so full of life. My husband is a great teaser and they would go at it all the time.”

Despite the shootings, Miss Cathye said the church has come together like never before. “After the shooting, I thanked God for allowing me to be just a little part of Wedgwood Baptist Church. We knew the world was praying for us. Brother Al said so.”

Meredith smiles as he predicts that Wedgwood is the most prayed-for church in history. Moments after the shooting, images of the tragedy were broadcast around the world on television and the Internet.

“We are doing so well because the whole Christian world is praying for us,” Meredith said. “We’ve had 20,000 cards and 13,000 e-mails sent to us. People are praying for us and that’s how we got through.

“God seems to pour out his grace on the basis of our prayers,” he noted. “Let me tell you that my fellow pastors in the Tarrant Baptist Association are the best friends I could have. They pray for us, and our churches pray for each other. The one central thing is our prayer ministry. If that’s not strong and healthy, your church won’t be strong and healthy.”

The Griffins, too, acknowledge the power of prayer in dealing with the death of their daughter. “We hurt very deeply,” Griffin said. “We miss our daughter incredibly. But it is our faith in God that sustains us.”

Every Sunday morning, around 30 members arrive before dawn to begin praying for the day’s worship services. Led by the pastor, a faithful band of senior adults, moms and dads and seminary students pray over every pew.

The morning meditation time is important, Meredith said, to bathe the sanctuary in prayer.

And while the church continues to experience physical and spiritual growth, many of those caught up in the events of Sept. 15 continue to recover from their physical and emotional wounds.

“I know there are lots of people still struggling,” said Marty Anderson, who was rehearsing with the church orchestra when the shooting started. “But that’s part of the grace. You know, the losses here were significant.”

No one probably knows that better than Kevin Galey, Wedgwood’s minister of counseling and community. Galey, thinking Ashbrook was part of an outlandish youth skit, confronted the man in the hallway. He was shot three times.

Galey returned to work after nearly five months of recovery, although doctors said he will suffer permanent disability in his hip.

For Galey, a professional counselor, dealing with the shooting has been at times difficult. “After a while there was an attitude toward the victims of ‘Why aren’t you guys better yet?’

“After several months, one woman suggested we just talk about the victory and not the tragedy,” Galey said. “A large group of folks wanted to go on before we were ready to move on.”

Even today, Galey said there are many families still involved in therapy and counseling. The trained counselor found himself so involved in other people’s lives that he didn’t deal with his own grief.

“There were these stages of grief,” he said. “For a time I was angry at myself and then I became angry at the church. I was probably angry at God.”

“Some people would tell me that God must have something wonderful for me. Well, couldn’t he have given it to me without being shot?”

Galey, a Southwestern graduate, suggested that because Baptists don’t know how to deal with tragedy they try to find all the answers.

“Let me tell you, not enough good things have happened at Wedgwood Baptist Church to justify what happened on Sept. 15 … to compensate for the loss of seven people” Galey said.

Even through his own grieving process, Galey said God’s promises continue. “Where evil abounds, his grace is more abundant,” he said.

Meredith confirmed that some of the young people are struggling with depression and panic attacks. “Some youth workers can’t sleep by themselves,” Meredith said. “On the whole, they are doing well and by God’s grace we’ll get through it.”

Jay Fannin, minister to students at Wedgwood, attended counseling sessions with his wife Nikki. “I think we both had different ways of dealing with this,” Fannin said. “But it’s important to go through the process and work through this.”

Kevin Pratt, 15, said that even now there are things that trigger memories of that terrible night. “Certain smells or sounds like a firecracker going off … a lot of those things take me back there,” Pratt said.

Theresa Mitchell, 16, said she started a scrapbook to deal with the tragedy. “It was soothing to put it all in a book,” she said. “You know something, God was there that night with us.”

Meredith acknowledged that the one-year anniversary of the shooting will be a real crisis for some people. “It will be hard,” Meredith said. “But it is part of the healing. Face your fear and pain. Don’t deny it. Don’t stuff it. Deal with it in a positive way. Weep with those who weep.”

Schoolteacher Jaynanne Brown was sitting next to her dear friend, Sydney Browning, when they came under a firestorm of bullets. Brown was hit in the back of the head.

Now recovered from her injuries, she offered an observation shared by many of the believers who survived that night of horror. “Life goes on,” she said. “We have our lives to live and we want to tell the world that we aren’t going to be stopped.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: WEDGWOOD’S AMAZING GRACE.

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes