Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary mourned its loss, but celebrated its Savior in memorial services on campus Thursday morning.
Students, faculty and friends packed the 1,600-seat Truett Auditorium as they remembered the deaths of three of their own and the severe injury to two more by a gunman who opened fire at Wedgwood Baptist Church during services Wednesday night.
Of the eight who died – including the gunman – and seven who were wounded, five were either current or recent students of the seminary.
Participants sobbed, hugged, applauded, sang, prayed, and even cheered as they turned the regular Thursday morning chapel service into both a memorial and a celebration of Jesus Christ.
"This was a regular chapel service; we have such services each Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but today it turned into a wonderful memorial service," said David Porter, vice president for public relations of the seminary.
Seminary President Ken Hemphill set the tone as he prayed, with his voice breaking, asking God to "be present in our grief … suffering and sorrow" but remembering, too, that in God's presence is "our hope and our power."
Hemphill, Wedgwood pastor Al Meredith, and Little Rock pastor Rex Horne, spoke briefly to the students.
The service began with participants singing a medley of favorite hymns: Blessed Be the Name of the Lord, Glory to His Name, My Jesus I Love Thee.
The songs were reverent, hushed, and almost dirge-like as those present remembered Shawn Brown, 23, who was studying to be a youth minister; Kim Jones, 23; and Sydney R. Browning, 36, a Fort Worth teacher and children's choir director at Wedgwood Baptist Church.
They thought, too, of the injured: Jeff Laster, a diploma student who was a custodian at the church and thought to be the first person shot; and Kevin Galey, a doctoral student and teaching fellow who was minister of counseling at the church.
Hemphill wept as he called the dead Southwesterners "martyrs," and then told the students that in the midst of their sorrow and grief, "there are some things that we know.
"We know that God is still on his throne … that death and devastation are tactics of the adversary (Satan) … that the resurrection is a sure and certain reality … and that our fellow students are already present with the Lord.
"We know that our Lord is an ever present help in time of trouble. There are no easy answers, but we know that He will bring solace," he said.
Hemphill said the tragedy shows the "need for a spiritual awakening. We need revival to end this senseless violence, so that our children will be free to walk our streets … feel safe in church and in school.
"I urge you to pray as you have never prayed and witness as you have never witnessed."
He called the participants to a time of prayer, and for more than ten minutes, they prayed. Some sat silently, with folded hands in laps. Some knelt at the front of the bare auditorium, and still others prayed in groups of twos, threes, fours, and clusters. Some lifted hands to heaven.
At the end of the prayer, they sang "a hymn of victory" and their voices swelled as they sang "Amazing Grace … how sweet the sound."
At the end, they applauded, then shouted, and then cheered for several minutes.
Meredith told of the three who had died and said he had known all three well.
He told of Kim Jones, who had only become a Christian two-and-a-half years ago, but had "really come to know the Lord" when she was converted.
"On the night before her death, she led a Bible study for her old sorority sisters and begged them to accept Christ as their personal savior."
Shawn (Brown), a graduate of Howard Payne University, was a youth minister, and "came to seminary to learn better how to win kids to the Lord." Meredith told how Brown and his wife taught fifth grade Sunday school, and recently taught in Vacation Bible School.
When a single mom with children in the fifth and sixth grades called the church to ask for a visit from someone, Meredith said he without hesitation sent the Browns to see her.
Meredith called Sydney Browning "a special woman. She loved the Lord; she defined commitment." He told how she directed the children's choir at the church, and since she was sitting in the foyer when the gunman arrived, was among the first killed in the rampage.
"They called her 'Squib,'" he said.
Meredith told the participants it is a time of pressure, but reminded them that what they really are is demonstrated when they are under pressure.
"You don't squeeze an orange and get Dr. Pepper. What you have on the inside is what shows when you are under pressure," he added.
As he spoke, he began to sing the old gospel hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness, and the participants joined in, a cappella.
A Member's Testimony of God's Sovereignty and Grace
Evidence of God's control during the shooting:
• The gunman fired over 100 bullets into a crowd of over 400, yet only fourteen people were hit. He did not shoot the over sixty bullets he still had with him.
• The pipe bomb exploded upward, not outward, causing minimal damage. The shrapnel landed in the balcony.
• One of the youth that was wounded while shielding a disabled friend has scoliosis. The curve in her spine directed the bullet away from major organs, saving her from serious injury.
• Because the first 911 call came in on a police radio, emergency vehicles were dispatched immediately, without spending precious time to verify that call was real.
• One of the people in the church at the time was a paramedic, and he was able to stop bleeding and stabilize injured people before the emergency crews arrived.
• The pastor, Al Meredith, was not in the church yet. He was delayed half an hour. His plan was to observe the concert from the back row.
• All seven victims were not just Christians, but bold Christians who were passionate about their faith.
What God has done since the shooting:
• We have received over 13,000 emails, over 20,000 cards and letters, hundreds of posters, and nearly $100,000 in donations from all over the world.
• Al Meredith has had the microphone in his face continually and has over and over given an outstanding answer to the reason for our hope. He presented the gospel beautifully on Larry King Live when prompted by a question asked by Vice President Al Gore.
• Because of the live news coverage and interviews, over 200 million people have heard the gospel because of this tragedy.
• Fifteen thousand turned out for a community-wide service at TCU football stadium. Brother Al gave a very challenging message calling for a day of fasting and heart searching. The service was broadcast live in its entirety on WBAP 820, which is a news station that covers most of north Texas. This same news station has replayed our pastor's first press conference due to people calling in and requesting to hear his comforting words again.
• CNN also broadcast the memorial service live. Amazingly, because one of the victim's family lives and works in Saudi Arabia, that country allowed the service to be broadcast there as well. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to say the name of Jesus on the street.
• Because of that same CNN broadcast, thirty-five people in Japan gave their lives to Christ.
• At several schools, students met around their flagpoles the next day. At one school twenty-five students accepted Christ and 110 at another.
• A teacher led twenty-two students to Christ in her classroom.
• Christian teachers all over north Texas have been able to share with their classes because the students are asking questions about their teachers' faith.
• On the east coast, where "See You at the Pole" was delayed because of the hurricane, record numbers of kids showed up to pray.
• A caller to an area Christian radio station said that he didn't know what those people had but he wanted it. The DJ proceeded to lead him to Christ. Many notes left in front of the church contain the same sentiment. Those who don't know Jesus want what we have!
• My friend Jodi has been praying for her husband for years. She and their four-year-old daughter were at the church that night. Three days ago Scott gave his life to Christ.
• We have had over 70,000 hits on our web page, which displays the plan of salvation in multiple languages.
• Many members at Wedgwood Baptist are healing broken relationships within the body and experiencing spiritual renewal.
These are just a few of the miracles that are happening. God's grace is almost overwhelming. Every time the gunman fired a bullet, he intended to take a life. Yet God turned that around and saved several lives for each bullet fired. The faith of those who died has been multiplied many times over.
"I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world." Romans 1:8
"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is being done, the saving of many lives." Genesis 50:20
Source: An email message, the contents of which were verified by Wedgwood Baptist Church.