The headlines Wednesday were hauntingly familiar.
Charleston church shooting: Multiple deaths reported
Charleston church shooting: 9 killed in what officials call a hate crime
On Sept. 15, 1999, horror struck Fort Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist Church when Larry Gene Ashbrook invaded a youth rally carrying 200 rounds of ammunition and a pipe bomb. Before he turned his gun on himself, seven people were dead and seven others injured.
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Now the Wedgwood church community is praying for members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, who are mourning the loss of a pastor and eight others.
“Your heart aches for them,” said the Rev. Al Meredith, Wedgwood’s senior pastor. “Nine people murdered in a church is an egregious tragedy, as we well know.”
Meredith said the Charleston congregation has lost its leader and will need prayers to hold it together through a deeply trying time. The attack on the historic black church comes after the recent shooting death of an unarmed black man by a North Charleston police officer. The climate is that of a “tinderbox,” Meredith said.
“Charleston is in the midst of deep racial tension,” said Meredith, who is widely known as Brother Al. “We need to pray for that community.”
Meredith said his congregation was able to recover with the help of Fort Worth’s extended community. Police officers, community leaders and politicians stepped up support. The congregation received 13,000 letters and about 20,000 emails after the shooting, he said.
‘Churches are not safe places’
Hurst police officer Jimmy Meeks, who is also a minister, said Thursday that since 1999, when the Wedgwood and Columbine massacres took place, more than 550 people have died violent deaths on church or faith-based property. The deaths, which are not always shootings, cross religious, racial and ethnic lines, he said. Often, they are domestic violence cases that start in a home and erupt in a place of worship.
“Churches are not safe places,” Meeks said. “Criminals don’t believe in the sacredness of a building.”
Meeks has conducted about 120 church safety seminars in the last six years as part of sheepdogsafetytraining.com, which advocates safe practices for congregations. He reminds churches to “be on your guard against men. They will harm you in the house of worship.” That means getting security guards on church campuses and parking lots, he said.
“Where does this murdering come from?” Meeks said. “People get angry and they get filled with hate and then attack.”
Violence on churches take an emotional toll for many years, Meeks said, explaining how a 1980 mass murder at the First Baptist Church in Daingerfield still lingers. Meeks, who was married in that church, has ties to that community.
“These people in South Carolina, unfortunately, the pain has just begun,” Meeks said.
Experience comforting others
Meredith, who has announced plans to retire in mid-August, said he may try to contact Charleston church leaders to offer support. In the past, he helped comfort the First Baptist Church congregation in Maryville, Ill., when it lost its pastor to a shooter. The Rev. Fred Winters was shot and killed during a Sunday sermon in 2009.
In 2012, Meredith was among religious leaders who offered prayers to families in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were gunned down inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In 2013, he hosted a two-day seminar — organized in part by Meeks — that focused on helping those affected by crimes and violent acts at churches and also included presentations on child predators, security plans and church safety.
“Right now, they are in shock,” Meredith said of the Charleston church. “It is shocking to think there is no sanctuary. There is no safe place.”
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675