Forest Hill church where pastor was slain embraces a new leader

Posted Thursday, Sep. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Every Sunday morning for 18 years, Pastor Danny Kirk Sr. stood at the front door of his church, Greater Sweethome Missionary Baptist, and hugged almost every person who showed up for services.

That might have been an understatement. Kirk was a bear of a man, a former college football star well over six feet tall. Engulfed was probably closer to the truth.

“Before the service he was hugging you, even if you were a stranger,” Rev. Percy Thompson remembered. “People who would join the church would tell you that was a key part of their decision to make it their church home. They felt that hug at the beginning and that warmth never left. That hug was still there.”

It’s fair to say that Thompson, a much smaller and more reserved man, is working on his own hugging these days. In June, the Sweethome congregation chose the 53-year-old minister to succeed Kirk, who was murdered at the church nearly a year ago by a troubled man on drugs.

Thompson will be formally installed as pastor during a service on Sept. 22.

“You might argue I hug a little more than I used to,” Thompson said, chuckling. He doesn’t yet hug everyone as they come in the front door, he says. “But eventually we’ll get to that.”

Thompson’s grieving flock needs hugging in both the literal and figurative sense, he said. Under Kirk’s charismatic leadership, the church had grown from 100 members when founded in 1995 to more than 800 at the time of the pastor’s death. The months since have been painful and often fractious, as church members grieved for Kirk and tried to determine a new path.

More than 200 members have left, Thompson said.

“First of all, there was some disarray because some people were ready to move on within a couple of months. ‘Let’s pick a new pastor,’” Thompson said. “I would venture to say some are still grieving. As we were going through a process of choosing a new pastor, some things got said that hurt one anothers feelings.

“Reconciliation, that has got to happen,” he said. “The recuperation part of it is giving grieving people a chance to heal.”

Even those closest to Kirk now say that it’s time to move forward with a new voice in the pulpit. Gradually, some of the members who have left are returning.

“We’re not going backward, we’re going forward,” said longtime church secretary Barbara Moore, who worked daily with the slain pastor. “That’s all in God’s hands. Give Percy a chance. You can still remember Pastor Kirk, but let Percy do it his way. It could be better.”

In Thompson, the congregation has turned to a familiar face, though a person relatively new to the ministry. Married and the father of three grown children, he has worked in the aerospace industry for 30 years. Thompson, will soon leave his current job as a production manager at Bell Helicopter to devote himself to the church full time.

In 1995, he and Kirk were part of a group that splintered from a Fort Worth congregation, holding their first services in a Forest Hill storefront, before building Sweethome’s current sanctuary four years later. As a lay leader, Thompson worked closely with the pastor over the following years, but continued to resist his own call to the ministry.

“I believe the Lord, at age 20, called me, but I didn’t accept the call,” Thompson said. “I saw so many ministers, from Catholic priests to Jimmy Swaggert, I didn’t have a good feeling about what they were doing. I kind of broadly brushed the whole group of ministers. The Lord showed me that I can’t use that broad brush.”

In 2011, he accepted the call.

“I went right to work under Pastor Kirk, not knowing that in a few months he would be gone,” Thompson said.

Just before noon last Oct. 29, a man named Derrick Birdow, 33, crashed his car into the church, then attacked the 53-year-old Kirk in the parking lot, bludgeoning the pastor to death with an electric guitar Birdow found inside. Church custodian John Whitaker was also injured in the attack. Arriving officers used a Taser to subdue Birdow, who died in the back of a patrol car a few minutes after his arrest. An autopsy later determined Birdow’s death was related to ingestion of the drug PCP.

“I heard about it from my father-in-law. He called me at Bell,” Thompson recalled. “He was crying and my brain wasn’t processing what he was saying. I got down to the church and 75 people were standing around the taped area. The crowd was multiplying. There was yelling and screaming, chaos.

“It finally dawned on me that the pastor was dead and he was inside,” he said.

More than 1,000 people attended Kirk’s funeral. His congregation struggled to move on.

“You still got some that are taking it pretty tough,” said W.C. Carter, chairman of the board of deacons. “He started that church and grew up with it. For some of them, it’s hard to move on. And the way it happened, it had more effect. It wasn’t just like he moved or somebody got sick and died. When it happened that fast...”

In the months after Kirk’s death, assistant ministers shared the pulpit. Thompson was not among them at first. But church members urged him to apply for the pastor’s job. Church elders considered about 15 other candidates before presenting Thompson to the congregation for a vote last June. About 70 percent approved his appointment as pastor, Carter said.

“My hesitation was that I hadn’t preached,” Thompson said of his initial reluctance to be pastor. “I preached three sermons before they voted for me. It must have gone well. I guess they liked what they heard.”

As Thompson begins his ministry, it’s inevitable he will be compared to his beloved predecessor.

“Both guys are compassionate, but the two are different,” Carter said. “You have different personalities and characters. They just have to get used to that. I have seen it change quite a bit. They are coming around to really accept him. He’s a good teacher, a good preacher and he teaches the Bible.

“It hasn’t been a year yet,” Carter said of the tragedy. “It will work out just beautifully.”

Danny Kirk would also be pleased, said his secretary, Barbara Moore.

“This is one of his sons in the ministry,” she said. “He started his training and he worked with the guy we chose. We’re not getting an outside person where we have to wonder if he’s going to do right by the church, or if he’s just in it for his own gain.”

“And he’s learning how to hug, yeah,” she said, laughing. “He started off shaking hands. Now he’s going on to hugging.”

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan

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