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Murders prompt neighboring churches to forge new ties in towns’ crisis

GONZALES, La. (BP)–Blood-stained pews and flooring, together with the rancid smell of gunpowder and vivid memories of an evening filled with petrifying horror March 10, made the New St. John Baptist Church in Gonzales, La., an unsuitable place for a memorial service. In fact, church leaders said they will never use their building again.
The pastor and members of neighboring First Baptist Church of Gonzales, a Southern Baptist church a mile away, thus opened their doors and hearts to the National Baptist congregation still in trauma from the carnage that occurred during their Wednesday night Bible study.
A young father, 22, known for his violent anger, had burst into the church near the beginning of the 7 p.m. service. He first shot two bullets straight up, then told everyone to get down as he headed deliberately to the front in search of his estranged wife. He found her on the fourth row.
Within minutes, three people were killed and four others were wounded before the gunman, Shon Miller Sr., was shot and apprehended by police after fleeing the scene and hiding in a shed. He was found holding his gun to his head.
“Daddy!” was the last word 2-year-old Shon Miller Jr. spoke before his father reportedly looked him in the eye and shot him dead as he sat with his mother, Carla Vessel Miller, 24. She too was shot and killed where she sat in the previously peaceful sanctuary in Gonzales, a small town about 60 miles west of New Orleans. Just six months before she had met with her pastor, Clarence Stephens, for counseling at the church with her husband.
Besides killing his wife and son, Miller randomly pointed his 9 mm semiautomatic pistol at others in the church, stopping to reload once. He killed one more and injured four others at the church. Also, before arriving at the church, Miller killed a fourth person, his mother-in-law, Mildred Vessel, 53, execution-style in front of her home while she was sitting in her van.
Vessel had just arrived home after finishing her responsibilities at First Baptist Church, where she had been nursery director for more than 25 years, said FBC pastor Jim Law. Vessel’s daughter, who worked with her mother in the nursery, drove directly from First Baptist to New St. John church to attend the Bible study. Miller, who reportedly knew his wife’s schedule well, assumed she would go home with her mother before attending church. After shooting his wife’s mother, he headed for the church, which is near the house.
The massacre will not soon be forgotten by members of the two churches, Law said, nor by residents of the small town of about 7,000.
“An entire generation of children, including my own three children, was introduced to church life in the loving arms of this dear woman,” Law said about Vessel.
More than 1,000 people attended a March 15 memorial service at First Baptist Church, and as many people who could find room to stand attended the dismissal service March 16 before the bodies were buried. No one remembered ever being at such a service with three caskets, holding the bodies of three generations from one family, Law said.
While the event was a monumental tragedy, Law said he saw the memorial service as “a historical event for the community” as “walls have been taken down as we have shared together in this great loss of life. So many people here knew and loved Mildred and Carla.”
Four ministers from area churches participated in the memorial service at Law’s church. Besides Law and Stephens, the pastor of Vessel’s church, Do Right Baptist Church in Gonzales, and the pastor of one of the teenagers who was killed, gave eulogies. Many people helped with food, and a fund has been established to help the families involved pay medical and funeral expenses.
Leaders of New St. John Baptist Church have chosen to construct a new building rather than meet in their pretty, little white building that prior to March 10 had been the site of sweet memories. They held their Sunday services March 14 in the Gonzales Civic Center.
Many young people came forward to dedicate their lives to Christ during the March 15 service, Law said, noting two gang members laid their jackets on the altar and said, “We don’t want this life anymore.” A 19-year-old boy was one of the four people killed; he was shot in the head as he sat behind Carla Vessel Miller. Three other teenagers were among the wounded.
“We have a God who is a acquainted with violence. His own son, the Lord Jesus Christ, died a violent death,” Law said during the memorial service.
“God is doing a great work in the midst of this tragedy in our community,” Law said in a Baptist Press interview March 16.
As of March 16, Miller is being guarded at bedside in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, according to an article in the Times-Picayune daily newspaper. The lower half of his body was paralyzed when a stray bullet struck him during his arrest.
The two men whom Miller had forced at gunpoint to drive him to both his mother-in-law’s house and the church were able to get into the church and warn Stephens of what they thought was about to occur. But as Stephens left the sanctuary to call the police, Miller entered the church. Stephens was about to preach on a passage in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, he said in a March 12 Times-Picayune article. “I was going to tell people to be strong in these trying and strange times,” he said.
“The safest place in the world I always thought was a church,” Gonzales Police Chief Bill Landry said, also in the March 12 issue of the Times-Picayune. “Now that sanctuary has been broken. We’ll all be a long time getting over this.”

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  • Debbie Moore