Texas church spreads hope

1999 shooting spurs Ft. Worth mission group to share its faith

July 22, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

One evening, nearly three years ago, a man wielding a gun burst into Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He killed seven congregants and himself. He also wounded seven.

"It was an incredible tragedy we went through, but that's not the whole story," Chris Shirley, an associate pastor of the church, told members of a Baltimore County church yesterday morning. "It's a story of lives transformed. ... God heals broken lives, and we know that and preach that. More importantly, God heals broken churches."

While Wedgwood church members don't like to focus on the event that brought them to the attention of the world, they know it's the reason they can grab the spotlight -- and in turn spread their message of faith in Jesus Christ.

Yesterday, Wedgwood church members addressed the congregation of Valley Baptist Church in Lutherville, which has taken them in and offered them fellowship and a place to stay. The group of 30 young people and six adults will spend the week here. The missionaries will go door to door with prayers and light bulbs (two things people need, one woman said, though they may not know they need the former), work with kids in the community and talk about their church to people they meet on visits to Washington and Baltimore.

Underneath it all is the message that the human spirit can triumph over tragedy.

"I wanted that to rub off on our kids," said Bobby Cook, the youth minister at Valley Baptist who recently moved here from a different Fort Worth church and helped organize the visit.

Last Easter, Wedgwood unveiled a memorial to the seven who died -- a seven-sided granite monument, each side etched with the name, photograph and favorite Bible verse of one of the victims.

Shirley says his church's missionary efforts have taken off since the shooting. In the summer of 1999, not a single church member left Fort Worth to spread the word of God. This year, he expects 200 church members to take mission trips like this one. A pair of girls recently returned from a month in Russia. Others went to New York.

"I really like going to share Jesus with everyone," said Sarah-Rose Denson, 15. "I think some people felt bad [about the shooting] -- but I wouldn't want them to. They can remember God is always in control."

Why the gunman, Larry Gene Ashbrook, opened fire at Wedgwood on Sept. 15, 1999, remains a mystery. He wasn't affiliated with the church. With all the unanswered questions, Shirley is often asked why he didn't lose faith in God.

"If my faith was shaken," he says, "it wasn't there to begin with because faith is in things unseen."

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