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Spiritual leaders reflect on Texas church shooting

IN MOURNING — Community members and visitors gather in Ball Park in Sutherland Springs, Texas, to hold a memorial service for the victims of the mass shooting that killed 26 people Nov. 5 at the town's First Baptist Church.

IN MOURNING — Community members and visitors gather in Ball Park in Sutherland Springs, Texas, to hold a memorial service for the victims of the mass shooting that killed 26 people Nov. 5 at the town's First Baptist Church.

PHOTO COURTESY LYNDA GONZALEZ/KUT

Solemn occasion — At left, Pastor Slade Rickels of Liberty Baptist Church in DeLand stands outside his church Wednesday, with the American flag out front at half-staff. 

Solemn occasion — Pastor Slade Rickels of Liberty Baptist Church in DeLand stands outside his church Wednesday, with the American flag out front at half-staff. 

BEACON PHOTO/AL EVERSON

Jamie Rader, minister of Spring Garden Avenue Church of Christ in DeLand, stands in his church’s sanctuary. 

BEACON PHOTO/AL EVERSON

From sea to shining sea, a wave of violence is sweeping over the land, and no place, it seems, is safe and secure.

"That's the world we're living in. Nothing is sacred anymore," said Jamie Rader, minister of Spring Garden Avenue Church of Christ in DeLand. "It shows how much we need God in our lives, when we see the depravity and evil."

A mass shooting claimed 26 lives and left 20 others wounded at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, before the alleged gunman himself died. 

The record death toll for a church shooting in the U.S. is forcing clergy to think about new security measures, even if it means having armed members or guards on the lookout for anything suspicious or unusual.

"I believe churches are going to have to step back and take safety precautions," DeLand First Presbyterian Church Senior Pastor Patrick Wrisley said.

The shock of the Nov. 5 crime, covered extensively on national television, evoked strong reactions and theological insight among local clergy, as well as thoughts about how to protect their own flocks.

"It was appalling. I was horrified that that happened, but it did not really surprise me. This could come to where we are," Liberty Baptist Church Pastor Slade Rickels said. "I think it woke everybody up. We're living in a crazed world."

Dr. Fred Lowry, pastor of Deltona Lakes Baptist Church, said security in the sanctuary is now a concern.

“The first thing that went through my mind was looking after our own church. We’ve made some preparations already,” Lowry said, without elaborating. “It seems this is becoming a more common occurrence.”  

Rickels said his congregation numbers between 80 and 100 on Sunday mornings, about equal to the attendance at the Sutherland Springs church.

"This could come to where we are," Rickels said.

That is not an isolated fear.

"It's the new reality. Houses of worship are soft targets," DeLand First Presbyterian’s Wrisley said. "There are no safe places anymore. I hate to say that."

“Thirty-four years in the ministry — I never thought I'd have to face something like this," Rickels said.

The prospect of evil invading churches during worship may only prompt the faithful to redouble their efforts to live the faith they profess.

"We've been asked to shine the light of Christ where the human heart can be so dark," said Dr. Mark Winkler, pastor of Emmaus Lutheran Church in Orange City. "I wonder how somebody gets to the point in life that they want to murder people. I don't know how they can murder."

Winkler said he has confronted death and trauma before, and has learned to console victims and loved ones in disasters and tragedies.

"I was a police/fire and EMS chaplain in St. Paul, Minnesota, for nine years, and I never felt adequately ready to minister to people, but I was never left with nothing to say because the Spirit gave me the words of comfort," he said.

Congregational pastor and retired Air Force Chaplain Lewis Long recounted the impact of the news of the Texas shooting.

"I think I had a brain freeze, and my heart was palpitating," Long said.

The former lieutenant colonel recalled his service as a casualty officer, assisting at disaster scenes and sharing grief with victims' families.

"I've been called out as a chaplain to some painful situations," Long said, noting one particular up-close-and-personal experience with death in a jet crash at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, not far from Sutherland Springs. It’s is something he cannot forget.

"But I never imagined anything like this," Long said, regarding the church massacre. "It's really painful. It's not something you recover from quickly."

Long's wife, Caryn, added her thoughts.

"I pray that if something like that happened in the church I attend, that we would have the grace to handle it the way the church in Charleston [South Carolina] did when they reached out with forgiveness," she said, alluding to the shooting deaths of black parishioners by a white gunman in 2015.

As for the theological dimension of the tragedy, Wrisley offered his thoughts.

"People say, 'Where was God in all this?' God did not do this. God is in the midst of the darkness," he said. "It's hard to make sense of this massacre."

Lowry sees the shooting as part of a societal change.

“It seems it’s the result of throwing the Bible in the dumpster. We’re not giving people any moral foundations anymore,” he said.  

Noting the Texas shooter reportedly acted out of revenge against his in-laws, Rader ascribed the church shooting to an emphasis on self.

"We've gotten into worshipping ourselves, rather than worshipping the Creator," he concluded.

Winkler and other pastors said some of their members already have concealed-weapons permits and come to church armed and ready, just in case.

- Al Everson, al@beacononlinenews.com

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