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Past church violence survivors offer hope, joy

CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP) — Al Meredith had just attended his mother’s funeral the day before a man with a gun and pipe bomb attacked a youth prayer event at Meredith’s pastorate in 1999, murdering seven and injuring seven others before taking his own life.

Meredith arrived at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, less than five minutes after the tragedy, already grieving from his mother Hazel Meredith’s funeral near Detroit, Mich.

“I was numb. I just went into action mode. The Holy Spirit just took over. I just did the next thing,” Meredith said, remembering hospital and morgue visits that filled the night, and press conferences that began the next morning. “That’s the way the Lord used me. He put me in an emotional state of numbness so that my emotions were kind of anesthetized and I was able to just deal with each situation and let the Spirit speak to me.”

Sixteen years later, when Meredith heard the news of the massacre of nine Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., his memory of having shepherded his own congregation through a similar tragedy gave him an uncommon degree of compassion and understanding.

Meredith sees the Charleston tragedy as especially troubling because the church lost its pastor Clementa Pinckney in the attack. A 21-year-old white supremacist, Dylann Roof, visited the church June 17 for the first time, sitting an hour in a Bible study and prayer meeting before shooting nine members dead.

“Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter,” Meredith told Baptist Press, referencing Zechariah 13:7. “In normal times if the shepherd is removed the sheep scatter. But these are anything but normal times for them.

“And the body of Christ must pray for this congregation that God would provide leaders they can trust, who can preach their funerals for heaven’s sake — not to mention comfort grieving families, shocked church members, people who are afraid to walk into the building — and somehow give a sense of direction in holding people, and giving them hope in the darkness, and all the things that a shepherd is called upon to do in times of emergency.”

Meredith has left telephone and text messages at Emanuel AME offering assistance, and has tried to contact the church through friends in South Carolina.

If given the chance, “I’d tell them there’s hope. It may seem hopeless. Romans 15:13 — Now may the God of hope fill you with joy and peace through believing that you might abound in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit,” Meredith said. “I’d tell them how the Lord brought us through, the good that the Lord brought out of our tragic situation, how the Lord was able to use us, the miracles of affirmation in the aftermath of the tragedy.”

Funerals are set to begin today (June 25) for those killed at Emanuel AME, with President Obama delivering the eulogy at Pinckney’s June 26 funeral.

Meredith has helped other churches recover, including First Baptist Church of Maryville, Ill., where pastor Fred Winters was shot dead by a stranger in 2009 while preaching the morning sermon. Winters’ widow Cindy Winters had considered the church a sanctuary of safety, and knows the unique pain of losing a loved one to violence in such a setting.

“I have been praying for them [Emanuel AME]; actually last night I spent a significant amount of time praying for them,” Winters told Baptist Press June 24. “I just was thinking about them and I felt so overwhelmed with what they were dealing with. It honestly has been such a hard week because I just have felt so bad for them … and then it brings up all the memories that we went through, and I’ve thought so much about what they must be experiencing, and I just grieve. I grieve for them so.”

Winters ministers to those seeking to overcome personal tragedy through her Grace & Hope Ministries. She also wrote the book “Reflections from the Pit” in 2013. Winters said she will allow the Holy Spirit to guide her in offering to console and uplift the Emanuel AME congregation.

“I would love to contact them at some point. I pray that we’ll see that and be faithful to do what He desires in that situation,” Winters said. “Unfortunately loss and hurt is one of the things we can all relate to, and it transcends gender, and race, and socioeconomic class and things like that. Loss is one of the things in life that all of us will experience, one way or the other.

“It can be very, very unifying. And so I think it’s the one thing that can draw a lot of people together,” Winters said. “We’ve even seen it in our nation, how this loss [at Emanuel AME] has drawn a lot of people together.”

Winters also encouraged prayer for the Charleston survivors and the families of victims.

“Even if we’re not there, taking time to stop and to pause and to reflect on what happened and on the impact of how they must be feeling, and then to allow that to guide our prayers and our actions,” she said, “I think that that’s really important to do.”

Terry Sedlacek, who killed Winters’ husband, is confined to a mental health facility in Alton, Ill., and is deemed too mentally unstable to stand trial, but Winters publicly forgave him shortly after the crime.

Both Winters and Meredith said it’s unlikely the church will ever fully recover from the tragedy, but will likely be able to continue in ministry.

“I don’t know if you ever recover from something like that,” Winters said. “I think you learn how to get through it, but I don’t think you ever get over it this side of eternity. I know one day I will when I’m with Jesus. Obviously only by the grace of God am I able to get up each day and go forward, and find beauty and meaning … and find goodness in living. Just by being able to know that there is a God who is still able to be trusted when things don’t make sense, and just knowing that He’s with me, no matter what.”

Meredith, who is retiring in August after nearly 30 years in the pastorate at Wedgwood Baptist, said he still experiences waves of grief from the shooting and bombing at his church.

“There are times when a wave of grief hits you yes, 15, 16 years later,” Meredith said. “Yes, all of a sudden a song, or a smell, or something like this hits and all of a sudden the reruns in your mind come back, so you go through the grief process again.”

Meredith praises God for the forgiveness expressed by friends and families of victims in Charleston, where Roof is being held in solitary confinement.

“I appreciate that representatives from every family publicly told the killer, ‘I choose to forgive you. You need to repent, but I forgive you. And only Christ can do that,'” Meredith said. “The world does not understand that; every other great religion says seek revenge on those who harm your loved ones; God says love your enemies.

“Jesus says do good to those who despitefully use you. And their testimony rang true and I praise God for that.”