FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Don Browning stood in the broiling sun Sunday, Sept. 19, to tell 15,000 mourners at a football stadium of the first solo his slain daughter, Sydney, ever sang.
“We were a family of songs and love and light,” he said to those who gathered for a community-wide memorial service for those killed and wounded when a suicidal gunman burst into the Wednesday night service at Wedgwood Baptist Church Sept. 15 in Fort Worth, Texas.
“When my daughter was 6 years old and in the first grade, she sang her first solo, ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ She didn’t sing the Anglo version. She sang the African American version.”
Browning, who now lives in Phoenix, Ariz., on Saturday had buried the 36-year-old Sydney, who was children’s choir director at Wedgwood and a teacher in a program designed to keep at-risk children in school.
His voice breaking, Browning sang the slightly jazzier version of the children’s song:
“This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine / Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
He said children were encouraged to make up their own verses, and as he led out with another stanza … “Let it shine all over Fort Worth-town …” the voices of the participants picked up the verse and sang it with him at first softly, and then with more power.
“At the age of 36, Sydney sang the last verse,” Browning said, and led as the participants followed:
“Let it shine till Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine / Let it shine till Jesus comes / I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
Browning concluded: “That is what we gotta do, folks. We’ve got to keep on letting it shine.”
Browning’s impromptu choir was one of two such emotional moments during the memorial service, which had been “pulled together” late Friday afternoon for Texas Christian University’s stadium by community leaders which included Mayor Kenneth Barr and Michael Dean, pastor of Travis Avenue Baptist Church.
The other moment when the audience formed an impromptu choir came as Al Meredith, Wedgwood’s senior pastor, said, “I want the violence and terror to stop,” asking participants to raise their hand if they wanted it to stop as well.
He asked them to raise the other hand, and encouraged them to say, “Hallelujah,” which he defined as “Praise the Lord.” After saying it several times, he asked them to sing it, and led in several repetitions of the chorus, “Alleluia.”
A reporter said the strains of the familiar praise chorus sweeping across the sun-drenched stadium was “eerie,” and recounted that when Larry Gene Ashbrook burst into the packed sanctuary of Wedgwood Wednesday night, the band was playing a version of the chorus, a song called “Alle.”
In an emotional message, Meredith recalled that at 6 p.m. Sunday, the Jews of the world enter into their highest holy day, Yom Kippur, and urged participants to fast, pray, right their lives and seek the face of the Lord so the violence and terror will stop.
He said he has been amazed at the aftermath, and said that “we are just ordinary people, but we have an extraordinary God.”
Meredith’s words at the outset of his sermon, that he wanted to be sensitive to members of all faiths in the audience, caught the attention of the local newspaper.
“To our Jewish friends,” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted Meredith as saying, “I want you to know the most precious person in my life is a Jew. All my hopes are placed in him.
“[But] if I had what I was convinced in my soul was the cure for cancer and AIDS and heart disease, and I knew it could cure, but I thought it might offend some people if I suggested it, how reprehensible it would be for me to keep it to myself. …
“There is only one genuine source of hope. It is found in Jesus Christ.”
Meredith also spoke of his congregation’s return to its church that morning. He said he asked the children if they are now afraid to attend services, and some said they were.
“So today, my heart aches as I try to make sense out of this,” Meredith said, the Star-Telegram reported. “What can be said for a society that has no respect for the sanctuary of God? What can be said for us, people?”
Ken Hemphill, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where two of the slain and two of the injured were students and one was a recent graduate, said “the world has looked on with amazement that we have handled our grief with victory.”
“But our pain is real, and we do grieve. But we do not grieve as ‘those without hope,’” he said, quoting the Apostle Paul, and noting Christians know that death has been defeated by Christ and “we live in the light of the promises of God.”
The community service was opened by Brett Parker, a senior at North Crowley High School, who said those who came were there “to honor those who lost their lives in this horrible thing.” He asked God in his prayer to “take your healing hands and ease the pain we all are feeling … .”
Dean and Barr praised all who had worked so hard in the immediate aftermath — fire, police, medical technicians — and all of the hundreds of others who took part in the relief effort, including schools, churches, individuals, groups, businesses and others.
Also present at the event — although not on the stage — was Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.
Dean said Bush had been asked “repeatedly” to speak at the memorial, but the governor, who also is an announced candidate for the Republican nomination for president, declined.
Dean said Bush told him the event was a religious and not a political event. One news outlet quoted Bush as saying he felt it would be “inappropriate” for him to address the memorial. So he and his wife — and entourage — sat in the stands, three rows back from the field.
Participants felt a solemn moment as another student, Patti Cornelius, a senior at Southwest High School, only a few miles from the church, slowly read the names of those killed in the savage onslaught.
Another student rang a large handbell one single time after each name was read:
Kristi Beckel … Shawn Brown … Sydney Browning … Cassandra Griffin … Kim Jones … Joey Ennis …Justin Ray.
Despite the amplification system which usually booms out football plays, the audience had to strain to hear as Cornelius’ voice got softer and softer with each name she read.
Four Fort Worth clergymen brought brief remarks, including Scott Colglazier of University Christian Church, Richard Beaumont of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church and Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger of Beth-El Congregation.
Roberto Arrubla, pastor of Iglesia Bautista El Buen Pastor, who represented Hispanic Baptists of Texas, said “pain does not know distance, color, ethnicity, age or status, and the comfort of the Lord also does not know distance, color, ethnicity, age or status.”
“Praise God for his wonderful mercy and his wonderful grace.”
Arrubla told participants he is “proud of Texas Baptists who have provided so much assistance” to the relief effort.
Two students from Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., which was devastated April 20 when two teenage gunman rampaged through the school killing and wounding fellow students and teachers, came to offer help.
“We didn’t come with answers,” said Craig Nason. “We know what you are going through … we came with prayer, love and support. We want to help you carry the burden any way we can.” Nason and Ashley Steele then went into the congregation to touch and pray and minister with their Texas peers.
Christian recording artist Stephen Curtis Chapman sang three songs, including one he wrote for the funeral of a girl slain at West Paducah, Ky., in another act of random violence two years ago. Chapman said he came because he wanted to help those grieving and hurting however he could.
Other music was provided by a choir and orchestra of musicians and singers from across the area who gathered shortly before the service and John Lee, minister of music at Travis Avenue Baptist Church, rehearsed them on such standards as “It is Well With My Soul.”
A trumpeter, wearing shorts and a gimme cap, sat next another player wearing a black suit and tie. Some singers lifted their hands; others didn’t. All were sweltering in the heat of the 95-degree plus day. A few fainted.
Texas Baptist Men volunteers handed out bottles of water to the musicians, newspeople and anyone who wanted a drink of cool water in the heat.