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Wedgwood families tell how 1999 tragedy has changed them

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Stan and Stephanie Jones could never have imagined how their lives would be changed that day in September 1999 when a dead car battery forced them to stay overnight in a hotel in the Middle East country of Bahrain.

Stephanie and Stan had raised their two children, Kim and Tim, for nearly 10 years among American oil company families living in Saudi Arabia. Earlier that year, 22-year-old Kim had graduated from Texas Christian University and had just started a master’s degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

After 24 hours of flying back from the United States into Bahrain, Stephanie and Stan had stopped to eat before the drive to their home in Saudi Arabia. When they finished eating, they couldn’t get their car to start.

If the car had started, Stephanie said, they would have been on their way to Saudi Arabia. They would have gotten home, unpacked and gone about their business. They would not have been watching CNN.

They took a room in a hotel for the night. In the room they turned on the television. After some coverage of Hurricane Floyd, a report came on about a shooting tragedy in Fort Worth, Texas. A man with a gun had gone into Wedgwood Baptist Church during a youth gathering and started shooting. Eight people had been killed inside the church, several others had been wounded. The shooter had committed suicide. Names were not being released.

Immediately, Stephanie sensed that her daughter, Kim, was one of the victims.

“You’re just being negative,” Stan tried to console her.

“You know me,” Stephanie replied. “I am not negative. I am a very positive person. I’m just telling you: the Holy Spirit is telling me that Kim has been involved.”

The Joneses began making international telephone calls back to Texas. Over the next couple hours, there in the hotel room thousands of miles away in the Middle East, Stephanie and Stan Jones learned that their daughter indeed had been killed in the tragedy.

As they stood sobbing in the hotel room, Stan was sobered by a voice so clear in his mind that the words were virtually audible.

“Do you trust Me?” the voice asked.

Stan turned to Stephanie.

“Now is the time,” he said to her deliberately. “We either stand on what we believe or we throw it out the window.”

Stephanie looked up at her husband. For both of them it was a moment that tested their idea of truth, their faith in God and their convictions about God’s promises revealed in Scripture.

No one would begrudge them for being angry at God in that moment. Nearly everyone would understand if Stan and Stephanie pulled away from their relationship with God for a while to sort things out.

After all, what are the chances that a young, single, female seminary student who had sold out her life in service to Jesus Christ just three years earlier would be shot and killed in the sanctuary of a Baptist church in Texas?

“I choose to believe,” Stephanie responded.

Although wracked with sorrow, together they fell down on their knees and prayed.

Stephanie said the words of their prayers felt inspired. It was almost as if in that moment of belief God’s Holy Spirit gave them strength and words to pray.

“Lord, You are in control,” they prayed together. “Nothing touches us that hasn’t first passed through Your hands. We need Your strength. We cannot handle this unless You work all things together for good in all this. We want to be so in tune with You that we do not miss any opportunity to bring glory to Your name as a result of this tragedy.”

It is one of those contradictions that make the concept of true Christian faith in God so elusive to so many unbelievers.

Why would God allow one of His precious followers to be killed in a seemingly random act of violence? How could a loving God allow a mentally unstable loner named Larry Ashbrook to walk into Wedgwood Baptist Church Sept. 15, 1999, a church located so deep in a safe, middle-class neighborhood that even he even had to stop and ask for directions to get there, and then take the lives of seven people and wounding seven others?

Why, indeed.

“It will always be partially a mystery,” Don Browning said recently from his home in Phoenix, Ariz. “But we have seen God’s work through the attention brought to it all around the world.”

Don Browning’s daughter, Sydney Browning, 33, was the children’s choir director for Wedgwood Baptist Church. Hers was the first life taken as the shooter entered the church vestibule.

Also a single woman, Sydney was a little further along in her life and ministry as compared to Kim Jones. Sydney had completed her master’s degree in Christian education at Southwestern Seminary eight years earlier. For 11 years she had been a teacher at Fort Worth Independent School District’s Success High School, a school for high-risk teens. She was popular with her students, well-loved by her peers and highly regarded by the school administrators.

Five years later, Don is a semi-retired Baptist music and youth minister. He and his wife, Diana, still live in the same house they’ve occupied for many years. He does interim music ministry in churches around Arizona. Speaking of Sydney’s death, Don has found consolation in the stories people have shared of how Sydney’s testimony has changed their lives.

He related how a Baptist Student Union director told him that the news accounts of Sydney’s life and death had prompted many college students to rededicate their lives to serving God. Sydney had held firm to her relationship with the Lord throughout college, seminary and into her secular and church ministries. In an era when many college students who were raised in church never darken a church door, Sydney’s testimony changed many hearts.

Even close to home, Don told of a woman from one of the churches he had served in. This woman said she had a friend who was interested in the things of God, but had not yet given her life over to Him. When this friend heard that the woman had known Sydney, the friend wanted to know more.

As the woman related Sydney’s life and faith to her friend, her friend finally acknowledged her need for Christ. The woman called Don. Don came over to visit with the two ladies and confirmed the salvation of the friend.

“Even today,” Don said, “she is active in her church and is still going strong in her faith.”

One of those who admired Sydney’s work with the church youth choir was Chip Gillette. Sydney taught each of Gillette’s four children as they progressed through the youth department at Wedgwood.

“She was such a bright spark of a person,” Gillette said.

At the time of the shootings, Gillette was a 13-year veteran with the Fort Worth Police Department. He was a lay leader at Wedgwood, his wife Debbie was Pastor Al Meredith’s secretary, and they had raised their four children in a house just a couple hundred feet from the front door of the church building.

Gillette was the first police officer to arrive on the scene. Actually, he was off-duty and at home asleep in preparation for his early shift. He was rudely awakened when the family’s normally sedate golden retriever, Jake, began barking wildly at the front window overlooking the church building.

“He wouldn’t stop,” Gillette said. “I thought someone was outside teasing him. When I came out of the bedroom, every hair from the tip of his nose, along his spine to the end of his tail was pricked up.”

Gillette went outside to see if he could find out what or who was upsetting Jake. Just then Gillette saw some church members running out of the church building, casting their eyes up and down the street, and moving about quickly. Gillette called out to them. Knowing who he was, the men shouted back that someone was shooting inside the church and people were already down.

Gillette’s 16-year-old daughter, Rebekah, was inside the church. The next hour or so was like tunnel vision, Gillette said. He ran into the building to get control of the situation as he had been trained to do. He heard the approaching sirens. Entering the building, Gillette heard one gunshot. It later turned out to be the shooter’s self-directed round.

Rebekah was physically unharmed, but she had been sitting just in front of one of the fatally shot youth, 14-year-old Kristi Beckel.

Five years later, Gillette is a corporal with the Fort Worth Police Department. He and Debbie still live in the same house. They are still actively involved in the life and ministries of Wedgwood. Rebekah is a 20-year-old junior at Tarrant County College studying to be a physical therapist.

In the first couple years after the shooting, Gillette and Rebekah often were invited to speak at churches, revivals and conferences all over the country, sometimes together and sometimes individually.

“That has slowed down some the last couple years,” Gillette said.

God has worked in remarkable ways through the Gillette’s public speaking ministries.

“We emphasize that the shootings in reality did not destroy anything eternal,” Gillette said of the theme of the messages he and his daughter share.

“We experienced momentary heartbreak and even terror, but it was Psalm 23 in action that evening,” he said. “It is beyond the comprehension of most people why bad things happen to good people. However, our pastor has pointed out that bad things happen to everyone … and God’s blessing of salvation is amazing in and of itself.”

Three years ago, Gillette was invited to a church in Boiling Springs, N.C. He spoke at various times over a three-day event. Just last year, the same church invited him back for a citywide evangelistic outreach. After speaking at the outreach, a woman came up to Gillette.

She told him that she had heard him speak the first time two years before, but had ignored the invitation. This time, though, she said her heart was convicted as she heard again of God’s protection, blessing and offer of eternal life. She told Gillette that she had that night given her heart to Jesus Christ.

“We have seen over 100 people come to know the Lord at these various events,” Gillette said.

In just over five years, Gillette will be eligible for retirement from the police department. Before the shooting five years ago, Gillette was regularly involved in short-term mission trips to places like Haiti and Spain through the International Mission Board.

“That has kind of stopped since the shooting,” he said. “But I hope to pick that back up after retirement.”

Just as Gillette has used his experience to spread the Gospel message, the families of Kim Jones and Sydney Browning have found positive ways to continue the ministries each young woman had started.

Don Browning said that the Arizona Baptist Children’s Services named their library after Sydney in recognition of her nearly lifelong ministry to children. Children now use the library every day it is open.

Sydney’s life and ministries touched people as far away as Wisconsin. Shortly after her death, the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention named their annual youth camp the Sydney Browning Memorial Youth Camp.

Ernie Horn was a volunteer associated with Success High School who was impressed by Sydney’s enthusiasm for and disciplined approach to teaching her students there. Shortly after her death, Horn approached the school board with a proposal to give a brand-new soccer ball to students who demonstrate enthusiasm and discipline in their educational efforts but who might not necessarily be the “top” students. Soon, the Sydney Browning Kick Award was giving out hundreds of soccer balls to encourage at-risk students.

“For me, nothing can bring Kim back,” Stephanie said, reflecting back on the past five years. “But the more people can see how God has worked and touched people’s lives through all of this, it somehow eases the pain,”

The Jones family and friends have formed a Web-based ministry in memory of Kim Jones. Launched about six months ago, www.thelightstillshines.org tells the story of Kim, Stan, Stephanie and her brother, Tim, and their journeys of faith. Visitors to the website can order a DVD titled, “Going Home … The Journey of Kim Jones,” which contains interviews with Kim’s family and friends.

Most powerful, though, the DVD contains a videotaped presentation Kim made on July 16, 1999, just six weeks before she died. The video was recorded in Saudi Arabia as Kim gave the closing message to a group of young people attending a Christian conference.

The taping of Kim’s testimony may seem a coincidence. But someone once said that coincidences are just God’s way of remaining invisible.

Kim’s presentation was called “Going Home.” The video shows a smiling, vivacious, beautiful young woman explaining how the Christian life is like a backpacking trip. When the travels are over, Kim the world traveler explained how it is with relief and peace that the backpacker returns home, unpacks her clothes and settles into welcoming, familiar surroundings.

“Living out of a suitcase is not that fun,” Kim said. “But you know it’s OK because someday you are going home.”

Kim’s prescient remarks continue. “We are just on a journey, and we are heading for home. This world is not our home; we are strangers and aliens in this place. Someday this body of mine is going to die.”

Kim challenged the young people with this question: “Are you living a life of purpose? … What is the meaning of life? There are two reasons to live. One is to get to know the almighty Creator of this whole universe through a relationship with Jesus Christ, His Son. And then, to do what God has called you to do.”

For Stephanie, the greatest lesson she has learned from the death of her daughter was wholehearted reliance on God to lead her through each day.

“It has forced me to depend on God daily,” she said. “I am so weak and so inadequate. I cannot –- still –- get out of bed without praying, ‘OK, Lord, I can’t make it through this day unless You are completely with me.’ And we just walk through that day together. Before Kim died, there were days I could put God on a shelf. Now, there is not one day I can face without Him. So, for me, every day is a miracle.”
Brent Thompson is associate director of news and information at Southwestern Seminary.

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  • Brent Thompson