Features

Long road ahead

National | A year after a lone gunman killed eight in a Fort Worth church, survivors struggle to move on

Issue: "Breaking the term limit," Sept. 16, 2000

& Candi Cushman - Polished pews, new carpet, and freshly painted walls greeted the nearly 2,500 people who packed Wedgwood Baptist Church last week to celebrate the church's 40th anniversary. Gone were the blood-stained floors, splintered benches, and bullet-nicked plaster damaged in last year's Sept. 15 shooting spree. On that day Larry Gene Ashbrook invaded a post-See You at the Pole youth rally held at the Fort Worth-area church. Brandishing handguns and pipe bombs, he waged a one-man rampage that claimed eight lives, including his own, and affected hundreds more. Despite the church's remodeled interior, evidences of the shooting-including pieces of shrapnel still lodged in the church ceiling-remain. Internal wounds also remain. Limping slightly from a bullet wound to the hip, church counselor Kevin Galey walked down the aisle last Sunday to give the invocation. Dubbed the congregation's "wounded healer," he has emotional wounds as well. Referring to the south foyer where Ashbrook entered, Mr. Galey told WORLD, "I don't walk down that part of the church any more." "Everybody heals in different ways at different times," said Wedgwood senior pastor Al Meredith, just after counseling a woman who is still suffering from deep depression. Mr. Meredith said the greatest challenge for Wedgwood's counselors and pastors is to understand "that what is healing to one is painful to another." The Laird family, for example, was not looking forward to a memorial service the church planned for Sept. 16, a year and a day after the shootings. When Ashbrook burst into the church last fall, Justin Laird and his parents were in the sanctuary listening to the rock band 40 Days. During the ensuing hail of gunfire, one bullet streaked past Justin's parents and slammed into their son, permanently paralyzing Justin from the chest down. It was his 16th birthday. Justin returned to school in a wheelchair in January, but he has not returned to Wedgwood. "He's not ready, he doesn't want to go back," said Mrs. Laird, who since the shooting has left work to devote her time to caring for her son. "I was talking to someone at Wedgwood who said this [service] was kind of a closure for a lot of people. Well, this thing doesn't close for us," she said, her voice trembling. "It's an ongoing thing." Still, the Lairds are thankful Justin survived, when so many other families lost loved ones. Ashbrook's siege claimed the lives of youth choir director Sydney Browning, 36, youth pastor Shawn Brown, 23, seminarian Kimberly Jones, 23, and Kristi Beckel, Joey Ennis and Cassie Griffin, all 14. Also killed was Justin "Steggy" Ray, 17, who videotaped Ashbrook right up until the moment the gunman fatally shot him. Wedgwood youth pastor Jay Fannin says the loss of four high-schoolers hit other kids particularly hard. Kristi had been attending the church's youth group for just a few weeks. Like promising stories left unfinished, the abrupt ending of young lives left plaguing questions: What kind of friend would he have been? What kind of person could she have been? "I think there has been a loss of innocence," Mr. Fannin said. "The invincible attitude [of youth] has been stripped away." Over the past year, the church's youth group doubled in size to about 130. Many are Wedgwood youth seeking support in the wake of the tragedy, but some have come from the other 13 area churches represented at the youth rally that night. Mr. Fannin said some kids who witnessed the shootings felt alienated when they rejoined other youth groups without their experience of grief. "Their youth groups got tired of them talking about it, so they came to be a part of our youth group because they knew we would allow them time to heal." Wedgwood's focus on healing began the Sunday after the shootings. Worshippers who attended standing-room-only services that morning passed under a banner that read "Let the healing begin." Prayer rallies and group counseling sessions followed in the weeks to come. Media attention spurred the church's largest growth in years. But some Wedgwood members are concerned that the church's early concentration on healing short-circuited another critical passage: mourning. "One of the concerns I have is, have we moved forward faster than the people who have been affected have been able to grieve?" said Mr. Galey. "Have we left them behind? ... Are we still moving faster ahead?" Though he still wrestles with questions, Wedgwood member Jeff Laster said the tragedy strengthened his belief in God's sovereignty and protection. On the night of the shooting, Mr. Laster, a seminarian at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a part-time custodian at the church, was chatting in the church foyer with a group of friends, including youth choir director Sydney Browning. When Ashbrook entered the foyer, a cigarette dangling from his lips, Mr. Laster stood to greet him. Ashbrook pulled out a pistol and fired a shot that tore into Mr. Laster's left abdomen and through five internal organs before lodging in the right side of his back. Then Ashbrook turned and killed Sydney Browning with a shot to the head. Mr. Laster told WORLD he's heard others who were at the church that night but weren't shot say they are thankful God protected them. "What does that say in my case? I got shot," Mr. Laster said. "What does that say about Sydney and Shawn Brown and other people who were killed? If God protected [those who weren't shot], what did he do for us? I wondered about that. I don't think that God slipped up and wasn't quick enough to catch the bullet or something.... Because I trust in Him doesn't mean I am not going to be shot or not going to have cancer or not be in a car wreck. His protection came in the cross.... If I had died the same night that Sydney did, my protection is that I have eternal life afterward." In addition to affecting his sense of God, Mr. Laster's brush with death also changed the way he relates to other people. "I was sitting next to Sydney and having a conversation with her. One minute she was there and one minute she wasn't. So I guess even if it's just a few minutes, I try to stop [and spend time with people] instead of just saying hi and going on by." For many, moving beyond the tragedy has been difficult. Jaynanne Brown was sitting next to her best friend Sydney Browning when Ashbrook killed her. The two sang side by side in Wedgwood's adult choir. But Jaynanne, still struggling with her loss, has not been able to return to her place in the choir loft. Chip Gillette, the first police officer on the scene and a member of the church, said a few families, unable to deal with the trauma of returning to the once-bloodied sanctuary, left the church. Some Wedgwood kids struggled mightily in school during the 1999-2000 academic year, which had just gotten underway when the shootings occurred. Several children still have nightmares, sleep with the lights on, and cling to their parents more than usual, according to Mr. Galey, who still counsels some 20 people a week at church and seminary offices. Others whose lives Ashbrook shattered have rearranged the broken pieces. Eighteen-year-old Mary Beth Talley was shot in the back that night when she used her own body to shield a friend from Ashbrook's assault. Ms. Talley's bullet wound has healed (though friends say it still hurts her sometimes) and she's now a student at Baylor University. Jeremiah Neitz, a 19-year-old who stood up to Ashbrook, telling the gunman he needed Jesus, moved away from Fort Worth to escape media attention. He's since returned and is attending another area church. He and his wife Shellie are now new parents. Kristi Beckel's parents donated their daughter's organs to patients in need of various transplants. According to Dan Crawford, co-author of Night of Tragedy, Dawning of Light, a book about the shooting and its aftermath, Kristi's death may have helped sustain the lives of as many as 70 people. Mr. Gillette, Mr. Galey, Mr. Meredith, and others have appeared on television and radio and have spoken at both Christian and secular functions. Some view those media appearances, during which Wedgwood survivors often shared the gospel message, as evidence of God's turning evil into good. "God uses the broken things, the humblest things for His glory," Mr. Meredith told his congregation last Sunday. Journalists returning to the Wedgwood sanctuary this month will find the healing banner removed, but the recovery process continuing. "People have asked me whether the first anniversary brings back memories," said Jeff Laster. "I tell them, no, not really. To some degree the first anniversary is no different than every other day to me, because I think about that night every day."

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