SAMSON, Ala. (BP)–The memory of 18-month-old Corrine Gracy Myers running down the tiny rural church’s center aisle brought a subdued chuckle to pastor Brent Gay.
“You know how kids run around,” Gay said quietly.
Gay’s memory of the incident was seared into place when he learned that little Corrine and her mom, Andrea D. Myers, along with eight others were gunned down March 10.
Gay said it had become somewhat of a joke that the first person to “walk the aisle” in response to his invitation was a mere toddler. Myers, wife of Geneva County deputy Josh Myers, had visited the church Gay leads, Mt. Pleasant Baptist in Samson, Ala., several times since he had become pastor several months earlier. Gay also is a ministerial student at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, near the Florida/Alabama border, commuting an hour to and from Samson for his ministry.
Police say Michael McLendon, 28, was responsible for the massacre, which included five of his family members and ended when he committed suicide at a metals plant where he previously had been employed.
The day the shootings happened, Gay was in Samson with Mark Rathel, a BCF professor who preached that night during Mt. Pleasant’s week of spiritual renewal.
Moved by the sight of people “on the side of the street crying,” Gay asked the college if he could spearhead a ministry effort in the hurting town over the weekend, and “Project Samson” was born.
“I think it’s critically important during times like this for the church, the body of Christ, to go out there and help hurting people in the community,” Gay said. “It’s times like this that people find that a lot of things that they have put their hope in have no significance whatsoever. It’s a time that we can point them to Jesus Christ as the only source of true hope.”
On March 14, nearly two dozen students and faculty members blanketed the town and the surrounding rural area — prayerwalking, leaving flyers on the doors of all residences and businesses, and being available to listen and pray.
Drawing on his experience as a ham radio operator with Florida Baptist disaster relief and his emergency management training, Gay obtained permission from officials in Samson for the initiative.
Although other counseling and support services were available to residents after the tragedy, Gay said Project Samson took to the streets and sought people out instead of waiting for them to ask for help.
During training sessions at the Florida campus on Friday, March 13, Gay briefed the students on the general atmosphere in Samson and the logistics for how they would move around town. Both Gay and Mike Burns, a BCF professor who teaches courses in Christian counseling, had been in Samson since the shooting to prepare for the project.
Burns and Sue Gilbert, a campus counselor and adjunct professor, led in crisis/grief ministry training, while BCF dean of faculty Robin Jumper talked about prayerwalking.
“We were simply trying to prepare students and others as much as possible for what they would see,” Jumper said. But, he noted, experience in the field, especially in evangelism, is important. “You can’t learn how in a classroom,” Jumper said. “You actually learn how face to face with a lost person.”
A bus and several vehicles departed early March 14 from Graceville and met at Samson High School where 24 students and faculty members divided into six teams. They put fliers in people’s doors and stopped at local businesses where shop owners posted a phone number that those who were hurting could call and kept a few flyers on their counters as well.
Gay said his team met up with Deputy Myers who had just returned from the first of the funerals related to the shootings. On the day of the melee, Myers’ wife Andrea was visiting neighbors “right there on that street,” Gay said — in the same community where the church is — when she was gunned down as she sat on a porch with her daughter by her side. The Myerses’ 4-month-old daughter Ella was wounded in the shooting and has been released from the hospital; their 4-year-old son Issak was found hiding inside the home, unharmed.
Andrea Myers grew up near Wichita, Kan., and she and Josh moved to Samson about 18 months ago, according to news reports.
“I’m sure right now he’s going through a lot,” Gay said of Myers, recounting that his team encircled the deputy and held hands with him. “We had a chance to talk to him … and we had a chance to pray with him.”
At a business in Samson, one lady heard Gay speaking with the owner and approached him to say how brokenhearted she was.
“I was able to minister to her in the store and assure her that the emotions she was having were normal,” Gay said. He also left her a devotional booklet designed for crisis counseling situations.
At a local hardware store, the owner showed one team a bullet hole in the American flag — and told them 15 other bullet holes were discovered throughout the store. None, however, hit any of the five customers in the store at the time, the grateful owner said as the team posted flyers on newly installed windows.
BCF students Allen Marsh and John Harrell found themselves in the back of a police cruiser, being taken across town to the home of a young man who needed someone with whom he could talk.
“The meeting went very well and they were able to help [the man] with some of his issues,” Gay said. “At the end of the meeting they shared the Gospel with him.”
Noting that Samson and its surrounding communities typically are places where people congregate on their porches and are not afraid to leave their doors open, Jumper said he believes the BCF effort will help. Although people were leery when first approached, he said they quickly became appreciative upon learning of the teams’ efforts.
“This is not supposed to happen in a small town in Alabama,” Jumper said. “We simply sought to provide ministry with each person as we felt led by the Lord to do so. We were trying to be a listening ear. To hear how it affected them and how they were connected, and we tried to respond from there.”
Jumper encountered an elementary school teacher and member of a Baptist church in Samson who voiced concern about how she could help children connected directly and indirectly to those who were killed.
“How was she going to do her job and handle it spiritually?” Jumper said, describing the teacher’s concern. Jumper and two BCF team members “prayed for her. We held hands, the four of us, and just offered loving care and prayer and support for her, at her home, and she was very grateful.”
Gay said the effort will continue inasmuch as there is a telephone number that people in Samson can call if they are in need of prayer or they just want to talk.
“We live in a tough world and that’s where it is,” Jumper said. “If we are going to minister in that world, we’ve got to be ready to face the difficulty.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.floridabaptistwitness.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention.