EDITORS’ NOTE: On Sept. 15, 1999, seven people were killed at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, by a gunman who then killed himself. The following three stories share some of the witness of faith that has emerged from the tragic events of five years ago.
FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–One of Kathy Jo Rogers’ most vivid memories from the Wedgwood Baptist Church shootings begins nearly 24 hours earlier, when her husband of nearly two years, Shawn Brown, came home to their campus apartment at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as she was cooking supper.
“He said, ‘Kathy, I just need you to pray for me because I have so much to share that I don’t know where to start,’” Kathy recounted. “He was pacing the floor … wanting to know how he could even begin to tell what God had laid on his heart.”
He was scheduled to speak to a youth group in West Texas in October and was preparing a message from Hebrews 12:1-3, “that we should run the race marked out for us,” Kathy said, “and that we should throw off everything that hinders us and run with perseverance.”
As they ate, Kathy agreed to pray for her husband, who revealed that he’d felt moved to pray for her all that day. A kindergarten teacher, Kathy said she assumed the urging was due to the stresses of her profession.
“I could only imagine what all those prayers were really meant for,” she said. “There are lots of things, but I never knew that God had really had him praying for me for the next day…. That’s what I really believe that God was having him pray for me about, even though he didn’t know it.”
The next day, Sept. 15, 1999, was routine. Shawn stopped by and saw Kathy and her students in the morning before proceeding to Southwestern Seminary for another day’s classes. The couple cooked supper together that evening and watched coverage of Hurricane Floyd. Kathy took a telephone call and agreed to baby-sit that night on the condition that she could bring the children to Wedgwood Baptist Church that evening for a youth rally marking the annual “See You At The Pole” youth prayer vigil at schools across the country.
Wedgwood’s weekly choir practice and other Wednesday evening meetings also drew many adults and children and senior citizens to the church facilities that night. In addition, more than 150 teens, along with their adult leaders, gathered for the See You At The Pole prayer rally and concert.
Shouting obscenities and anti-Christian rhetoric, 47-year-old Larry Gene Ashbrook entered the rally shortly before 7 p.m. He opened fire on the teens and adults, reloading callously and setting off a pipe bomb. Seven people were killed or fatally wounded and seven more injured before Ashbrook turned the gun on himself. As he died, Shawn Brown lay among his victims.
Kathy had not yet arrived because she had run late picking up the children, who had begged to see “one more inning” of a baseball game they were watching.
“We were about to park in a handicapped space because I was really in a hurry and I wanted to get in there,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘No, these kids will always remember that I did that,’ so I didn’t…. I went around and parked at the other side of the church, which is probably why we didn’t walk in behind the gunman. Otherwise we would have, because I saw his truck.”
Kathy and the children heard the shooting as they entered the building, just as people began running out. Kathy grabbed the hands of the children she was caring for, turned around and darted for the parking lot. After getting them to safety, she dialed 911.
The wait for details began. Friends began gathering on the campus of Southwestern, some coming from Dallas and as far as Waco as word spread. The more people arrived, Kathy said, the more she was hurt and comforted at the same time, forced to confront the reality of Shawn’s death while dearly thankful for their support. They mourned, prayed and sang into the night.
“There is an unexplainable peace,” Kathy reflected. “There is no way to explain it, and from that point on there has been an unexplainable peace. One thing that kind of meant a lot to me, even the next day, as I was kind of … numb, wondering how I was going to survive, I was thinking about Shawn’s sermon he wanted to preach. The first part of that verse is that we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”
At that point, Kathy said, she came to believe that Shawn had joined the cloud of witnesses from Hebrews 12:1. She described the days and months that followed as “a roller coaster” of emotional ups and downs. A turning point came when a friend took her by the hand and urged to her say, “God, I trust you.”
“They impacted me more than any words I had heard,” Kathy said of the four words. “It really allowed me to understand what it meant to empty myself of all my understanding of why things like this have to happen and know that nothing happens to us that doesn’t pass through God’s hands first.”
From then on, whenever she was having a hard time, Kathy said she would look up and pray, “God, I hate this, but I trust you.”
Kathy’s friends and seminary family rallied around her. Southwestern allowed her to stay in seminary housing for 10 more months. She continued receiving counseling from seminary faculty who encouraged her to visit places she had frequented with Shawn. This was necessary, they said, in order to prevent the locations and memories from becoming “cobwebs.”
Comfort also came from unexpected sources. A few weeks after the shootings, Kathy read a letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News about Wedgwood. The letter spoke of Shawn, the other victims, Christian martyrdom and moving forward from tragedy. Something about the letter struck a cord with her. The author was Marc Rogers, a Methodist pastor in Eastland, Texas. Amazingly, Eastland was Kathy’s hometown and where Shawn was buried. The letter so moved Kathy that she felt obliged to thank the writer. She traveled to Marc Rogers’ church office, where they met and prayed together.
A year later, Kathy began e-mail correspondence with Rogers. A year after that, they were married. Most of Kathy’s friends were supportive, while some objected, saying two years was too soon after Shawn’s death.
“Different Christians have different philosophies about how you should handle something like that,” Rogers said. “We basically decided that what we were going to do was look to the Lord and let the Lord make those decisions and not worry too much about what other people thought…. What was most important to us was what God wanted for us.”
As the fifth anniversary of Wedgwood approaches, Kathy said dealing with the feelings that memories stir up can be difficult. She is quick to praise Rogers’ compassion, especially during the challenging times.
“Even though he never met Shawn, Marc is very, very sensitive about, you know, the healing I still go through and the hurt I still go through this time of year,” Kathy said. “It’s just real tender because these are very lasting memories of what happened.”
“God gave me the inner awareness or the inner feeling of accepting Kathy and accepting Shawn and caring for her as a widow and not worrying about that,” Rogers reflected. “All I can say is that it was a miracle because I’m a normal man. I have the same jealousies and the same insecurities and whatever, but I never felt with Shawn that there was any kind of tension. [Kathy and I] took that as an example that God had brought us together.”
He was profoundly moved, Rogers said, by his wife’s uncommonly astute grasp of the Gospel. Jesus, he pointed out, loved even those who were crucifying Him. This is one of many ways in which Rogers said Kathy has shown him Christ’s love.
“Not very long after we had gone out, we were talking about that night and we were talking about the shooter, about Larry Ashbrook,” Rogers recalled. “I felt like Kathy would maybe be glad that he had taken his own life, just as a revenge thing or because she didn’t want to deal with the trial and then the conviction and then the appeal and then finally the execution, many years later…. She said to me that she was really sad that he had killed himself because he didn’t have the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel, that there wasn’t an opportunity to receive forgiveness for what he had done.”
Kathy said the biggest lessons she has learned from the shooting are that “every moment is precious,” that God is trustworthy and that He remains sovereign.
While Kathy has “sweet memories” of Shawn, she noted with a smile that God has begun a “new song” in her life. Today, the Rogers family attends Wedgwood with Seth, their 2-year-old son.
“He brings beauty from ashes,” Kathy said. “I love Isaiah 61:3, that God brings the oil of gladness instead of mourning…. To me, the theme of that verse is redeeming power. He can redeem anything and that is what He has done for me.”
B. Jon Walker is a news writer at Southwestern Seminary.