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Wedgwood Baptist Church’s tragedy punctuated by marks of God’s triumph

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–To this day no one knows what motivated Larry Gene Ashbrook to walk into Wedgwood Baptist Church last Sept. 15 and open fire on adults and children in the building. He had no connection to the congregation that anyone can determine. How he even found the building is a mystery: Pastor Al Meredith says that the church’s location is a lesson in where not to situate a church. Even though it is less than a mile from Interstate 20 as it passes through Fort Worth, Texas, one must drive through a maze of curving residential streets to find it.

Still, shortly after 6:30 p.m. that Wednesday evening, he was there in the church, gunning down adults and teens who had gathered for choir practice, prayer meetings or for a rally celebrating that morning’s See You at the Pole prayer rally held at schools around the country.

Yet despite the tragedy, God was at work that night. Witnesses cite many small incidents that they say add up to evidence of God’s provident protection. The killer, after shooting at several adults in the foyer of the church and killing one, first opened a door that would have led him into the front of the church sanctuary, where approximately 400 teens were listening to the band Forty Days. Had he done so, he would have been within feet of those teens and had a solid mass of bodies to shoot into. Instead, for some reason Ashbrook exited and walked to a door leading to the rear of the sanctuary, which meant that most of those listeners had approximately 20 rows of benches between them and the shooter.

Another seemingly bizarre twist also probably helped reduce the casualty count: Many of the people in the church thought they were witnessing a skit meant to dramatize the shootings at Columbine High School only months earlier. (In fact, a few teens jumped up in the darkened sanctuary and shouted, “Shoot me, shoot me!”) Because of this, most of the people huddled down among the pews but did not stampede for the exits. Had they done so, they would have been funneled into a small area that would have provided a dense target for the shooter.

And witnesses say that Ashbrook several times started down the aisle, which would have allowed him an unobstructed shot down the length of pews, but for some reason turned back each time after only a few steps.

Still, many were wounded, and seven were killed: Sydney Browning, 36, the director of the children’s choir; Shawn Brown, 23, a student at nearby Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Kim Jones, 23, also a student at Southwestern. Four teens attending the post-See You at the Pole rally also died: Kristi Beckel, Joseph Ennis, Cassie Griffin, all 14, and Justin Ray, 17.

But tragedy is never wasted in God’s economy, and what Larry Gene Ashbrook intended for evil, God has used for good. While it is not possible to tell everyone’s story from that evening, a few anecdotes will suffice to show the truth of that.

Justin Ray: Justin was not a member of Wedgwood Baptist Church, but he had been invited on a summer missions trip to Del Rio, Texas, with the youth group, and afterward was not the same. “When he came back he really seemed to have grown up a lot,” his mom, Judy Stegner, remembers. He asked her, “Mom, what would you think if I became a Baptist?”

Justin, an only child, was interested in video and sound production and was at Wedgwood that evening to help run the soundboard for the band. He apparently believed the shooting was an act and went down from the church’s balcony to videotape the “skit.” Witnesses said that Justin stood as still as a tripod as he filmed Ashbrook shooting from the back of the sanctuary. Once Ashbrook caught sight of Justin, he took several shots at him, all missing; Justin never moved. A final shot caught him, and he died instantly.

Justin had not been able to participate in the See You at the Pole event that morning: the private school he attended, Cassata Learning Center, did not have a flagpole. After Justin’s death, the school principal arranged to have a flagpole donated, Congresswoman Kay Granger sent a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol, Texas state representative Lon Burnam in Austin donated a Texas flag, and a local headstone company donated a granite marker that reads, “In Memory of Justin Michael Ray.”

And so this September, there will be a See You at the Pole prayer rally at a school that had never had one before.

Cassie Griffin: Cassie loved frogs and collected frog trinkets, artwork and jewelry. In fact, her motto was F.R.O.G.: Fully Rely on God.

Her dad and mom, David and Tralissa, say she had come to know the Lord at an early age, around 7. David says Cassie was a typical 14-year-old. “She was no angel by any stretch of the imagination,” he says, “but she did love God, and she had a boldness for God that we didn’t realize until after her death.”

She had been to the See You at the Pole rally that morning at her school, North Valley High School, but a friend she had been praying for had not come, even after being invited. That morning Cassie wrote a note to that friend, Christina, that read in part: “I was crying this morning for you and every other non-Christian in our school. It’s just that I love you so much that I don’t want you to go to hell. … I love you and I want you to know that.”

“Christina called me Thursday after she’d learned of Cassie’s death,” David says. “She was just distraught, almost hysterical. She had had a fight with Cassie on Wednesday because of this note, and that’s the last time she saw her.”

But as a result of Cassie’s note and her witness, he adds, Christina “made the commitment to let Christ be her Lord.”

Kim Jones: Kim was known for her quick and easy smile. Her mom, Stephanie, says, “Kim just loved Jesus. I’ve never met anybody like her. She was willing to do anything to serve him. She always said, ‘Whatever he wants. Whatever he wants.’ She was the type of person that if she ever did anything, it was usually 100 percent.”

A memorial service for Kim was held at her alma mater, Texas Christian University, and the service was broadcast worldwide by CNN. Because Kim’s father, Stan, is an executive with Aramco, the Arab-American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia, portions of the service were broadcast in that country, the keeper of the most important sites in Islam, a country that strictly censors any Christian message.

“The Saudi broadcast of CNN had excerpts from [the memorial service],” Stephanie says, “and they had excerpts from me giving an interview and talking about Jesus.”

Friends also told Stan and Stephanie that the CNN broadcast was aired uncensored in nearby Jordan, which has had a long tie to the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam.

So by Kim’s death, people who perhaps never had heard of Jesus or knew nothing about the gospel heard about her love for the Lord and his message of grace.

Chip Gillette: Chip is an officer in the Fort Worth police department. He also lives just across the street from Wedgwood Baptist Church, where his wife, Debbie, is a church secretary.

Chip was trying to catch a short nap before going to a night shift when his dog, Jake, started barking crazily at the front window, which was Chip’s first clue that something was wrong at the church. When several people ran out of the sanctuary and told him that there was a gunman inside, Chip immediately got on his police radio and called for help. Because it came over a police channel, and because Chip knew exactly what information to provide the dispatcher, help arrived within minutes.

Chip donned his bulletproof vest, got his gun and ran over to the church. He entered the darkened sanctuary, gun drawn, just as Ashbrook committed suicide on one of the back benches.

The next day, Chip walked through the bullet-riddled building trying to make sense of the event.

“I said to God, ‘Give me something to take away from here,'” he says. Chip found a hymnal slightly tipped over in its rack. “Something just came up and said, ‘That’s it.’ “

The spine had been broken where the bullet entered, and it opened to the middle of Hymn 37, “The Hallelujah Chorus.”

“Every page before that was just shredded,” Chip says. “The bullet was still in the book and had stopped right at the chorus where it says, ‘King of Kings, Lord of Lords,’ and ‘He shall live forever and ever.’ It gave me such a chill up my spine to realize that God was in control, and that just gave me a sense of assurance.”

Pastor Al Meredith: Brother Al, as he prefers to be called, had just returned from Michigan, where he had buried his mother. He had been struggling for days with what God’s will would be through his time of grief.

“I distinctly remember praying, ‘God, I don’t know if you have something great or broader for the ministry here at Wedgwood,'” Meredith says. “‘I don’t know what it costs, but if I’m not willing to pay the price, I’m willing to let you make me willing.’ Four or five days later I came home to all this.”

He says he doesn’t regret praying that prayer, but he also admits that he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t wonder what God was up to. “God never uses anyone greatly without first wounding him deeply,” Meredith says. “Very few great men of God have ever lived without having deep fears of doubt and question. I haven’t doubted here yet for this, but the fact is I haven’t begun to get in touch with my feelings yet.”

Still, he was able to use the opportunity to preach the gospel to a worldwide audience, on the “Larry King Live” show, on the CNN broadcast of the memorial for Kim Jones, and especially during the Sunday morning service four days after the shooting where media from around the world were present.

“I have to give God the credit,” he says. “But on the other hand, either Christianity is true or it isn’t. Either we believe what we say we believe, or let’s pack it up and go sell used cars.

“When it comes down to it, if you don’t have that confidence, what do you have? The prospect of not believing, the prospect of turning your back on God when you need him most is more than I could bear.

“God has proven himself faithful over and over again all my life. As Job says, ‘Shall we praise God in good times and not in bad?’ If there’s any hope at all in all of this, it is that God is faithful and true.”
Neven is editor of Focus on the Family magazine, where this article was first published. Used by permission.

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  • Tom Neven