FORT WORTH, Texas, Sept. 10 (AP)--The bloodstained pews have been replaced at Wedgwood Baptist Church and bullet holes riddling the hallways have been patched.

A small hole in a sanctuary door is the only sign of the one-man shooting rampage in which eight were killed and seven wounded nearly a year ago.

The 2,500 members of the congregation have tried to move forward, refusing to let the eight-minute massacre define their church.

Still, healing has been a slow process. They have cried together, read the Bible together and prayed together. Their faith has been shaken, but now they are stronger.

``Ultimately, it was the grace of God that sustained us,'' said pastor Al Meredith.

Wedgwood Baptist was holding a community youth rally on Sept. 15, 1999, for ``See You at the Pole'' day, a national event in which teens pray around their school flagpoles.

Justin Ray, a lanky 17-year-old who had recently dyed his strawberry blond hair bright red to amuse his friends, was excited about the rally, which he planned to videotape.

Justin went to the church that afternoon to help a band set up. He made a quick trip home to cancel dinner plans with his mother, Judy Stegner, but promised to make it up to her.

``The last thing he said was, 'Don't forget to wash my blue shirts because I have to work tomorrow,''' Stegner recalled. ``Then he said, 'I love you.' ''

The music was thumping when Larry Ashbrook, who had no connection with the church, walked in with two guns, 200 rounds of ammunition and a pipe bomb hidden in his pockets. He seemed angry, witnesses said later, and asked about the service.

Then he opened fire at a group sitting in the lobby, and kept shooting as he walked down the hall and into the sanctuary filled with 400 people. He cursed and yelled, emptying clip after clip of bullets, and rolled his bomb down the aisle.

The 47-year-old, mentally ill man then sat in a back pew and shot himself in the head.

He had killed Ray and six others: Kristi Beckel, Joseph Ennis and Cassie Griffin, all 14; Kim Jones, 23; Shawn Brown, 23; and Sydney Browning, 36.

``That night at church, Justin was doing what he loved to do and wanted to do, and I'm very grateful for that,'' Stegner said, wiping away tears.

Four days after the shooting, the church held its regular Sunday service in the sanctuary, where the bloodied carpet and damaged pews had been removed.

Meredith felt that carrying on would start the healing process.

``The prince of darkness wanted to stop this church, but I didn't want to give him an inch,'' Meredith said. ``We were not going to let this stop us.''

The church received encouragement and prayers from all over the world--13,000 e-mails and 20,000 cards.

Kevin Galey, a Wedgwood counselor who was shot in the abdomen and hip, wanted to help others deal with their grief, fear and guilt but had to cope with his own emotions.

``I wonder why it happened. But men make their own choices, and Larry Ashbrook chose to walk into our church and kill people,'' he said. ``If God intervened every time, we'd all be robots.''

Justin Laird, who will turn 17 on the first anniversary of the shooting, is paralyzed from the chest down, the most severely injured of the wounded.

The former football player at Brewer High School still helps with the team and plans to be a coach. But he is not angry about the shooting.

``It's been a roller coaster, but we've tried to remain positive and trust in the Lord's plan,'' said his mother, Lori Laird. ``It's brought us closer together as a family and made us realize that you don't know what the next five minutes are going to bring, much less tomorrow.''

Jeff Laster, a Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary student, still has a bullet embedded in his back and suffers lingering digestive problems. He has accepted what happened.

``To me it's kind of hard to be mad at somebody who needed help,'' Laster said.

Stegner, still struggling with the death of her only child, is active in the national organization Parents of Murdered Children and speaks to teen groups.

``I can't bear the thought that nothing would come from this,'' she said. ``It still hurts a lot. I wonder what he could have done and what he would have become. I don't know that you totally accept something like this.''

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad