PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (Christian Examiner) – Even while city council members meet in emergency session to consider tougher restrictions for what they said is an out-of-control spring break, ministry leaders celebrate collegians who share Christ to the bleary-eyed partiers who line up for free-van rides and pancakes each dawn.
In the Florida Panhandle, where a house party dissolved into gunfire leaving seven people wounded early Saturday, police, residents, businesses and politicians are wrangling over what to do about the violence.
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen told a press conference he and his officers are "tired," "worried," and in "safety mode."
"We have drunk people on our beaches. We have drunk people under the influence of drugs on our beaches. ... We have drunk people under the influence of drugs with guns and no respect for themselves, others and most of all, authority," Keithen said. "We have a recipe for disaster."
At the west end of the Panama City Beach, cocooned from what a Fox news commentator loosely referred to as "Sodom and Gomorrah," about 500 collegians each year prepare for BeachReach, a ministry outreach of Southern Baptists' LifeWay Christian Resources first piloted in Panama City Beach in 1996.
Far from what has been described as one big party -- including underage drinking, sex acts on the beach, and the use of illegal drugs – spring break missionaries prepare to provide van rides from night clubs to hotels, share free food, and tell the story of Jesus.
The more hostile the territory, the more the message is needed, according to Anthony Allen, president of Hannibal (Missouri) LaGrange University, a school that has been sending students on mission to Panama City Beach for spring break for several years.
"We will continue to take students down there," said Allen, who believes litigation against those who sell alcohol to underage persons and those who commit crimes against women should be pursued.
"We have created a culture that anybody can do what they want," Allen said. "We have to be more serious for the sake of the young people – this is still a huge issue."
Huntsville (Alabama) news reported Kearria Freed, a 20-year-old student from Alabama A&M University student shot in the head in Saturday's violence, is "resting" and family and friends are continuing to pray for her.
Saturday's violence erupted at a house party where the victims were dancing, according to McKeithen, who said a motive is unknown at this time.
Others who were shot are Kelli Regina Curry, 20; Annesia Powell, 19; Tykeria Ethridge, 22; Henton Franklin, 22; Devanta Moore, 21; and Jacole Young, 22. Curry and Powell also are AAMU students.
The suspect, David Jamichael Daniels, 22, of Mobile, Alabama, faces seven counts of attempted murder. He was arrested Saturday by the Bay County Sherriff's Office and faces bond totaling $525,000.
Alabama A&M held a candelight vigil last night for the victims of the shooting today in its quad, according to AL.com news. Daniels is not an AAMU student, according to reports.
Following the shootings and an increase in violence overall, Anthony said there is always a "calculated risk" in any mission trip, but the students are accompanied by staff and faculty sponsors and activities are planned in advance.
Hannibal LaGrange students are there to serve up pancakes and ride along in vans as part of the supervised ministry effort that also includes inspirational speakers -- as part of on-location evangeism training for college ministry, according to LifeWay Christian Resources.
"This is a great opportunity for students to share Christ and minister to young people at a time in their life when they are searching for answers," Anthony said.