A decade ago Sept. 15, Larry Gene Ashbrook interrupted a youth prayer rally and concert with gunfire and tragedy. The disturbed middle-aged man strode through the doors of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, lit cigarette dangling from his mouth, and unloaded several rounds of ammunition from a pair of handguns. He killed seven people and wounded seven more before taking his own life with a bullet to the brain.
Wedgwood Baptist would never be the same. "We're still dealing with it," Pastor Al Meredith said on the cusp of the incident's 10-year anniversary.
Other churches are now beginning that same difficult journey. Murder has broached the doors of several congregations this year, including Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan., where high-profile doctor George Tiller, a performer of late-term abortions, was gunned down while serving as an usher at a Sunday morning service.
According to Jeffrey Hawkins of the Christian Security Network (CSN), church violence appears to be on the rise. Though no verifiable national statistics yet exist to document the phenomenon, Hawkins says the anecdotal evidence is cause for growing concern-a 17-year-old in Pontiac, Mich., killed; a church security guard in the Bronx shot in the head; a woman in Silver Spring, Md., murdered by her estranged husband as she exited Sunday worship. The tally of documented slayings in U.S. churches this year is six, the number of assaults and burglaries considerably higher.
As empathetic churches like Wedgwood Baptist minister to victimized congregations (see sidebar), Hawkins approaches the issue from the other end-prevention. He founded CSN last year to provide churches with training and to gather the best practices from around the country. Most local bodies, he says, are woefully underprepared to handle any kind of emergency, especially an armed intruder.
Hawkins, with 30 years of experience in security and law enforcement, wants every church, no matter its size, to think through and deploy a security strategy. He doesn't mean armed guards and metal detectors: "You don't want your security to be intimidating, because you don't want to drive people away or give the impression you're not inviting. Good security is like an iceberg; the general public should only see about 10 percent of what you have."
But can such a subtle approach really make a difference? In December 2007, a security guard at New Life Community Church in Colorado Springs proved it can. Jeanne Assam took down a gunman as he stormed the church building with an assault rifle, two handguns, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Matthew Murray, a troubled 24-year-old who only hours earlier had sprayed bullets at a Youth With a Mission training center 80 miles north, harbored clear intentions to unleash his rage against Christians gathered inside the massive New Life auditorium. He never got past the foyer.
Assam, a former law enforcement officer carrying a concealed weapon, shot Murray to halt his attack after he'd managed to kill two congregants and wound three others. Her actions likely saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives.
Hawkins teaches that security ideally should start from the parking lot, cutting off threats before they ever reach the building. He recounts one incident only two months ago at a church in South Carolina when a security presence outside the building prevented potential tragedy. Volunteer security guards spotted a woman walking toward the entrance with a shotgun in hand. They approached the woman and asked her intentions. She told them, without apology, that she aimed to shoot a particular churchgoer inside, and they were able to dissuade her.
The notion of layered security, beginning outside the facility and moving inward, is standard practice among security personnel in the know. Wiley Thompson, former Assistant Director at the FBI, preaches that layered approach as volunteer head of security at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale in South Florida: "We have a program that's designed around concentric circles of security, meaning we start at least a block away with an outer ring and then work in towards the altar."
On any given Sunday at the 12,000-person megachurch, Thompson deploys two dozen to three dozen security volunteers on top of a paid team of local police officers. "We call our program The Gatekeepers," Thompson says. It may all sound like a bit much, but stories of crises averted abound: Recently on a Wednesday night, a robbery suspect fled onto the First Baptist grounds in an effort to evade pursuing police. Thompson's team fanned across the massive campus sector by sector in a coordinated sweep to locate the intruder. "Within five minutes, we had located and placed the subject under arrest," Thompson recalls. "The beauty is it did not disrupt the Wednesday night services, and 99 percent of the people on campus had no idea it happened."
Thompson wishes every church and synagogue across the country, however small, would take steps toward such capability. He serves as chief of intelligence for 5 Stones Intelligence, a group that trains and coaches religious bodies on all matters of security.
Still, Thompson and Hawkins recognize that no security program is fail-safe. The only guarantee in any efforts to protect the church is grace. Wedgwood Baptist knows that well. "To the outside world, Wedgwood is the church where they had the shooting some time ago. That's not how we define ourselves," said Pastor Meredith, whose plan for the 10-year memorial service amounts to a celebration of grace. "We are blessed with all spiritual blessing in heavenly places; chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world; adopted into the royal family of God. That's our primary identity, who we are in Christ."
The confusion and horror surrounding the murders at Wedgwood Baptist 10 years ago remain almost as acute today as they did amid the chaos of flying bullets and teenage screams. The church continues to grieve, the question of why still left unanswered. Authorities never identified a motive for shooter Larry Ashbrook's actions, his near random target apparently only chosen for a vague, impersonal enmity with faith that echoed in the killer's final words: "This religion is bull____!"
Ashbrook was mistaken. The resolve of Wedgwood Baptist parishioners in the wake of their loss betrayed a true religion rooted in real faith. "God has given great grace for healing," Pastor Al Meredith said, "and one of the things that has been most healing is being able to tell our story. One of the final steps in the grieving process is being able to use your pain to help other people, and we've had a platform to do that the last 10 years."
Meredith and his congregation have made it part of their mission to reach out with comfort and solidarity to other local churches touched by tragedy. Just this past spring, after Pastor Fred Winters of First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., was shot and killed in the pulpit, Meredith booked a flight north to preach the following Sunday and counsel the traumatized staff.
He will visit the heartbroken church again this Labor Day weekend, eager to share the lessons of suffering and healing that now define his ministry: "Sometimes people think if they put on a happy face, they'll get through it. That's nonsense. It'll come back and bite you. You don't deny or diminish people's pain. It doesn't do any good to tell grieving people not to cry. Jesus wept. And it doesn't do any good to tell them not to question God. Jesus, the only one who was ever sinless and perfect, said, 'My God, my God, why?' If he can ask why, I can ask why."