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Pastor, wife share story of their daughter’s murder

BELTON, Texas (BP)–On Feb. 22, 1991, Dwayne and Bonnie Wheat’s lives changed forever.
The Wheats had gone to Lubbock, Texas, that day where Dwayne, who now serves as bivocational pastor of Berea Baptist Church in Big Spring, was to take a test required of Texas teachers.
They talked to their 19-year-old daughter, Charla, about 11 p.m. and then went to bed.
About 5 a.m. they heard a knock at their motel room door. “A person who identified himself as a police officer told us there was a death message for us,” Wheat recalled.
He was not surprised since both his father and Bonnie’s mother were in poor health, but when the officer said the death had occurred in Big Spring they were confused.
“He told us that our daughter was the victim of a homicide,” Wheat said. The officer gave them a number to call, and they learned that their youngest daughter had been stabbed to death.
The couple said they do not remember much about the drive home because “we were so much in shock. I don’t remember whether we talked or cried. I think we didn’t do anything except drive,” Wheat said.
When they got home, they discovered their daughter and her roommate had been sexually assaulted and both of them had been stabbed, but only Charla had died.
The man who committed rape and murder was a neighbor, Wheat said. He was quickly arrested, and later was tried, convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Wheat, who teaches at Big Spring State Hospital, and Bonnie, who is a public school teacher, were serving as bivocational ministers of education in Big Spring when the murder occurred. They still teach, but he is now pastor of Berea Baptist. They have another daughter, Brenda, who lives in Austin.
They shared their journey of unspeakable pain and grief at the 12th annual meeting of the Bivocational Ministers and Spouses Association in late July at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.
They took turns telling of their own experiences and emotions as they dealt with the reality of their daughter’s brutal murder and its aftermath.
To preserve the power of their testimony, this story is presented in their own words, edited for clarity and space.
“There was a moment at the beginning when God really spoke to my heart and gave me something to hang on to for the days to come. He spoke to Bonnie in a very different way, but for me, I think often of the passage in Romans 8 where it says that the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are indeed children of God.
“As we drove back from Lubbock to Big Spring, when we got to a town called Lamesa the Spirit said to my heart, ‘Dwayne, you have a heavenly Father who knows what it is like to lose a child violently.’
“That held my world together for many days and gave me something to hold on to until other things could begin to work.”
“That didn’t relate to me at all because my identity was more with Mary, the mother of Jesus, but I knew my child wasn’t going to come back.
“God gave me a little phrase, ‘My grace is sufficient … .’
“Somehow we knew that God’s grace was going to be sufficient, but I also knew that it had to be because we didn’t have anything else to hold on to. It was God’s grace or nothing.
“In those days I could not read the Bible and focus on it long enough for it to make sense, but it was God’s Word that was already in my heart that ministered to me. I am so thankful for that.
“It was things like, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ and ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.’
“In those first days there was questioning. We asked ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ and all of those normal questions, but we knew that was a trap that would not lead anywhere. I believe God used those Scriptures to show me that we just had to be still and let God be God.”
“There comes a point where our minds want to reject something like this and our grief may be overwhelming. Part of the healing process is to realize that we cannot reverse what has happened, that it is a fixed, historical event.
“We have to come to grips with the fact that this is something we cannot change and ‘Why?’ is something we will not have an answer to that would ever satisfy us. It is a meaningless question.”
“The most difficult thing was dealing with anger, and the whole issue of forgiveness and bitterness.
(She said many people said they would pray for her, but a friend named Nita asked her how she could pray for her.) “I told Nita just to pray that God’s grace will be great enough to overcome anger and bitterness.
“During those months, there was a pull on me from the people who said they knew I was going to make it and was not going to be angry, and from those who told me that I was doing too well, that I had anger bottled up inside of me. I was pulled in both directions.
“Sometime I would think I was doing OK, and then I would discover that I was angry, usually over some little bitty thing that didn’t matter at all. Once I got a bag of ice out of the freezer to make a glass of tea and I whacked it on the floor to break it up. That felt pretty good, so I just kept on doing it for a while.
“Through these years — seven now — I think the Lord has taught us some things about forgiveness and anger, but we didn’t come to these things quickly. It took a long time and a lot of prayer and a lot of searching the Scriptures.
“One thing I had to do was find a definition of forgiveness. For me, forgiveness had always been saying, ‘Well, OK. It didn’t matter anyway.’ But that doesn’t work when your child is murdered.
“I struggled for awhile, and here is my definition: ‘Forgiveness is giving up to God my desire to be angry and to get even.’
“Several places in the Bible we are told that ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,’ but I always thought that meant God was going to get even for me. What it came to mean was that God was going to carry the problem that I couldn’t handle. I had to let God carry the load of anger and bitterness and vengeance because it was too big for me.
“One counselor told us that God would honor our efforts to forgive. I realize that the Bible says for us to forgive, but all I could say was that I am not there yet.
“Here is another idea about forgiveness. Have you ever had anybody tell you that if you have not forgotten, you have not forgiven. Well, how do you forget that you gave birth to a child and raised that child and had that child taken away from you? Forgetting means there is no place to go if we have to forget in order to forgive.
“I did not find that in my search of the Scripture. I found that God will forgive our sins and remember them no more, but forgetting and remembering no more is a godly quality, not a human quality.
“As the numbness wore off, to say that I was angry was an understatement. In my mind I killed him [the murderer] every way I could, but within a few days I realized I could never hurt him badly enough or kill him dead enough to make me feel better.
(A friend of Dwayne is an evangelist) “and I went to where he was preaching and told him that I could not pray for this guy yet and asked him to pray for the [accused]. When we are badly hurt, one of the things we can do is to enlist prayer for the other person before we ourselves are able to pray.
(Dewayne recounted that the trial ended with a death penalty verdict and of how the father of the convicted murderer came to the Wheats after the trial,) “heartbroken but there was nothing he could do anything about. It gives us no satisfaction to know that his son was going to die, too.”
“I taught first grade in a Christian school some years back and one of our Bible verses was 2 Corinthians 5:7, which tells us that we walk by faith and not by sight. That verse came back to me and I realized that in a time of crisis we either walk by faith or we don’t walk at all because there certainly is no sight.
“Closely related to trusting God is the matter of thankfulness. Dwayne and I knew from the start that it was important for us to thank God for the time we had had with Charla. We did not thank him for her death, but we did thank him for the time we had with her … for the memories, for his presence getting us through this and for all the prayer support we had.”
“Any number of times, people said to me, ‘I couldn’t have gone through that.’ I always have wanted to say, ‘We didn’t volunteer.’ Some comments have made me angry, and that is one that has made me bite my tongue several times.
“About a year after Charla’s death, we did a study in Joshua, and in that book God is the resource for whatever comes. He never offers Joshua anything other than himself. He said he will be with us, whatever comes.
“We began to realize that God was going to provide all we needed to go through this. He was not going to deliver us from it, but he was going to deliver us through it.
“How many of you have heard that God will not give us more than we can bear?
“Bonnie and I looked and looked and looked for that in the Bible, but it is not there. It doesn’t exist.
“What it does say in 1 Corinthians 10:13 — the passage that frequently gets misquoted — is that there will be ‘no temptation’ beyond what you can bear. With temptation the promise is in place, but with tragedy, burdens, it is not.
“In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul makes a very different statement in regard to this: ‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.’
“It is not that he will not let things too great for us to bear come into our lives; it is that he will deliver us through those things that are unimaginably difficult. It is that he will carry us when we have too much to bear.
“When I went back to the funeral home before the funeral and saw the bruises begin to show on her face through the makeup and I realized that she had been terribly beaten, I had to be carried. When I read the autopsy report, I had to be carried. When I read the police report, I had to be carried. When we heard the testimony (at the trial) and all the details of what had happened, we had to be carried.
“Please, please, if you go away with anything, never tell someone that God will never lay on them something greater that they can bear. It isn’t true. What is true is that he will carry us when our pain and grief are too great to even think about.”

    About the Author

  • Dan Martin