NORWOOD – Three days after church-goers left their pews mid-sermon to tackle a gunman armed with a .357 magnum revolver, they returned to their seats at First Baptist Church for Bible Study and to talk through the experience with Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Disaster Relief (DR) chaplains.
Many were quiet at first, but by the end of the evening most of the 25 people present began to open up about the traumatic events of July 21 that left the congregation shaken but thankfully uninjured.
A man identified in court documents as Earnest J. Smith allegedly entered the church mid-sermon and fired two shots – one into the ceiling and one at the floor between himself and the pastor – before being tackled and subdued.
The service opened with Psalm 46. Pastor Stephen Fugitt introduced the passage by reading what he’d written in his notes: just read the Scripture, no need to comment.
“God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble. Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil.”
The church broke into groups with five of the chaplains.
They rehashed the order of events, recalling the doors at the back of the auditorium banging open and a gunblast long before anyone could figure out what was going on. With their ears still ringing 72 hours later, they debated whether they’d heard two shots or three (a recording of the church service suggests there were just two shots, though the bullet that tore a ragged gash in the carpet fragmented and put two holes in the wall a foot to the left of where Fugitt was standing). They searched for the shot-through ceiling tile, eventually realizing it’d already been replaced.
They also thanked God that though there were several teenagers in the service that morning, the majority of the kids were in a different part of the church for Children’s Church and didn’t have to witness things first-hand. They praised the quick action of the five men who tackled the suspect.
They joked nervously about their jumpiness and a reluctance to sit with their backs facing the door. They also asked if there was anything they could have done differently.
In this case, it appears the best possible scenario played out: people were frightened and a suspect is behind bars, but no one was injured beyond one church member who cut his shoulder on a chair as he wrestled with the gunman.
“The gentleman I spoke with was at first very nervous, but the longer we went the more he opened up and realized that God had used him last Sunday. I think he’s starting to have peace about it,” said Mike Dedmon, a layman DR chaplain from Elk Creek Baptist Church.
Nancy Dedmon, Mike’s wife, spoke with the wife and mother of two men who tackled wrestled the gun away from the suspect.
“I think they’re seeing that God had everyone in the right place at the right time,” she said.
“I saw some strength in these people,” Mike said. “Strength that only God can give.”
“I think they ministered to me just as much as I did to them,” Nancy said.
Church members asked for continued prayer to recover from the shock of the situation, and also that parents that don’t attend church themselves but allow their children to attend will continue to do so.
“Pray that we can feel that ‘church’ is a safe place again,” Judith said.
Koonce earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Oklahoma Baptist University in 2005.
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