'God is greater': Pastor of Fort Worth church where 1999 shooting occurred

by Gregory Tomlin, |
People view flowers on a road leading to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church the morning after a mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2015. A 21-year-old white gunman accused of killing nine people at a historic African-American church was arrested Thursday, said law enforcement officials who are investigating the attack as a hate crime. | REUTERS/Brian Snyder

FORT WORTH, Texas (Christian Examiner) – As Charleston reels from a mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church June 17, a Texas pastor is remembering a similar tragedy that unfolded in his church in 1999 and offering words of comfort for those affected.

"It does stir up memories because the grief is deep," Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth told Christian Examiner. "Grief is a process and it never ends, but God is greater."

That God is greater than human suffering and sin was something Meredith already knew, but the words took on greater meaning for him on Sept. 15, 1999.

On that night, a group of students were gathered in the sanctuary for prayer and worship when Larry Gene Ashbrook, a man with a grudge against Christians in general and Baptists in particular, walked into the church and opened fire.

One of the differences between them and us is that their pastor died in the onslaught. By God's sovereign grace I was spared and able to hold the congregation together. You know, the Bible says, 'Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.' Someone called of God needs to step forward and lead his people there and hold them together as a church.

Ashbrook fired more than dozens of bullets at the students and exploded a crudely made pipe bomb before turning the gun on himself. Seven people died in the shooting and another seven were wounded.

Meredith's phone is now busy again with calls from news sources seeking comment on the Charleston shooting. To him, the calls provide an open door to tell the greatest story in the life of his church.

"It's a chance to testify to God's grace," Meredith said.

Meredith said the shootings in Charleston and at his church are both tragedies, but he added the shooting in Charleston is especially tragic because the church's "shepherd" was killed by the gunman.

"One of the differences between them and us is that their pastor died in the onslaught. By God's sovereign grace I was spared and able to hold the congregation together. You know, the Bible says, 'Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.' Someone called of God needs to step forward and lead his people there and hold them together as a church," Meredith said.

Another difference, Meredith said, is that Charleston and the surrounding area have been plagued by racial strife in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black man, Willie Scott, in North Charleston. Michael Slager, the police officer who killed Scott, was arrested and charged with murder.

"Charleston is in the grips of racial tension," Meredith said. "We didn't have that here, fortunately, and didn't have it then. There's always been an element of trust between the police and the populace here."

Meredith said he believes white pastors should call black pastors to voice their care and concern, pray for them and with them, send them cards and letters and "stand with them." In fact, he said, fellowship with other pastors often suffers when a church is faced with significant tragedy.

"Pastors tend to get what I call 'Elijah Syndrome' [based on the prophets response to God in I Kings 19:14] where they think all others have disserted the work of the Lord and they cry out that they're the only one left – but they're not. It can get lonely in the pastorate. Now, it is time to reach across racial lines. They should take every opportunity to bridge the racial gaps between us," Meredith said.

Meredith said the attack on the Charleston church will be difficult for the congregation to understand, but he said the church will rely on God's strength and draw closer to each other, the same way his church did.

"Church members rallied together, held on to each other, wept with one another. It brought out the best in one another. It refined us. The body of Christ put its best foot forward," Meredith said.

The Fort Worth pastor is also confident that other churches in the Charleston area will rally around the Emanuel AME Church the same way Fort Worth churches did when his church was attacked nearly two decades ago.

Then, churches in the area called to say they were praying for the members of Wedgwood Baptist, came by the church to minister, and provided assistance with services. One Church of Christ congregation replanted flower beds trampled by police, emergency workers and others on the church campus.

"A great relationship developed with other churches," Meredith said.

On Wednesday evening, police say 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church and asked to speak to the church's pastor, Clementa Pinckney. Roof and Pinckney spoke briefly before Roof opened fire on the prayer meeting, killing three men and six women.

Roof, according to witnesses, left a woman alive to "tell the world" why he had killed the church members.

"I have to do this. You rape our women and have taken over our country. You have to go," Roof said, according to the eyewitness.

The FBI is investigating the incident as a hate crime and Roof has now been captured. He is in police custody in North Carolina.

Meredith, asked what he would say to Roof if he had the chance, said he would say the same thing Karl Barth, the famed Swiss theologian, would have said to Adolf Hitler if given the chance.

"Barth was asked what he would say to Adolf Hitler if given the opportunity and he said, 'I would tell him God loves him and Jesus died for him,'" Meredith said.

"I would reach out to this young man with the love of Christ. I would, of course, tell him, 'there are consequences for your actions and you will have to pay for your crimes,' but I would say, 'in the love of Christ there is no sin is so egregious that God's love is not greater.'"

Wedgwood Baptist Church's website now carries a banner calling attention to the shooting in Charleston and reminding church members of its past.

"We know all too well the pain of this day," the banner reads. "Pray the Lord will remind them, as he did us nearly 16 years ago, that darkness has no victory over the Light."

As the events in Charleston were unfolding Wednesday evening, a church in Memphis, Tenn., was also fired upon. A deacon at the St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church called police to report bullet holes in the church following an evening choir practice. No one was injured and there are no suspects.

Memphis police said the incident in Memphis and the shootings in Charleston apparently are not connected.