‘This was an at­tack on all of us here’

At Ore­gon church, hard ques­tions on faith af­ter gun­man kills Chris­tians

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELI SASLOW AND LIND­SEY BEVER

rose­burg, ore. — Two days ear­lier, the pas­tor had coun­seled fam­i­lies of the vic­tims, and one day ear­lier, he had prayed with sur­vivors as they rode on a school bus to re­trieve their be­long­ings from the crime scene. Now it was Satur­day morn­ing, time to lead his church, and pas­tor Lon­nie Wib­berd­ing stepped in front of his small con­gre­ga­tion and bowed his head.

“We now know that this was an at­tack on all of us here,” he said.

Their church, Turn­ing Point Ad­ven­tist, was lo­cated in an old Moose Lodge a few miles from Um­pqua Com­mu­nity Col­lege, where a gun­man had al­legedly asked vic­tims about their re­li­gion and then tar­geted Chris­tians dur­ing a mas­sacre Thurs­day that left nine dead. Now the side­walk on the road be­tween the church and the col­lege had be­come one long me­mo­rial, chalked with Bi­ble verses and vis­ited by prayer groups who sang hymns into the night.

It seemed to Wib­berd­ing and many oth­ers here that the tar­get of Amer­ica’s latest mass shoot­ing had been not just a class­room or a col­lege or a town, but also a re­li­gion. Now, in a church near the shoot­ing, it was left to Chris­tians to ask hard ques­tions about

their faith and de­cide how to re­spond.

“If he had been point­ing that gun at you, ask­ing if you were Chris­tian, what would you have said?” Wib­berd­ing asked. “How much does this mean to you? Imag­ine you were there.”

Many of his con­gre­gants felt they could have been there. In a town of about 20,000, the tragedy was not “six de­grees of sep­a­ra­tion, but one or two,” Wib­berd­ing said.

One mem­ber of the Ad­ven­tist con­gre­ga­tion had taken classes for two semesters with the teacher who was shot. Another had been in the class­room next door when the gun­fire erupted. Oth­ers had lost friends or dis­tant rel­a­tives. One, Sarena Moore, who usu­ally at­tended an Ad­ven­tist church an hour away in Grants Pass, Ore., had been killed.

Moore had been a mem­ber of an Ad­ven­tist con­gre­ga­tion for most of her life. Her faith had helped to sus­tain her through sev­eral di­vorces and a re­cent health cri­sis, friends said. Now those same friends won­dered whether her faith had also played a role in her death.

“Those peo­ple who stood up, they are the bravest peo­ple in the world,” said So­nia Gagliano, a con­gre­gant who had left her Writ­ing 121 class at Um­pqua mo­ments be­fore the shoot­ing be­gan. “I hope I would have stood up. I hope we can all stand up now.”

Wib­berd­ing had vol­un­teered to act as a coun­selor in the first min­utes af­ter he heard about the shoot­ing, even though he had no idea what to ex­pect. He had be­come a pas­tor in Rose­burg a few months ear­lier, mov­ing his fam­ily from Washington state, where he had been do­ing Web de­velop- ment. He spent the first four hours af­ter the shoot­ing sit­ting with fam­i­lies that hoped to be re­united with stu­dents, and then he stayed with the re­main­ing fam­i­lies af­ter the sher­iff an­nounced that the last stu­dents had ar­rived. “Griev­ing, just so much griev­ing,” he said.

And now, in­side his church, the griev­ing con­tin­ued. He asked mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion to stand and share their sto­ries of the rampage and their feel­ings about re­peated at­tacks on their faith. First, in June, a gun­man had shot nine peo­ple in­side a Methodist church in Charleston, S.C. Now another gun­man had posted anti-Chris­tian mes­sages online be­fore al­legedly aim­ing for Chris­tians in­side a com­mu­nity col­lege. “We need re­minders of the good in a sin­ful world,” Wib­berd­ing said.

“Prayer is what we need,” one con­gre­gant said, quot­ing from a text mes­sage she had just re­ceived from the mother of a shoot­ing vic­tim.

“I want to pray for all peo­ple who hate Chris­tians,” another con­gre­gant said.

“My sur­vival was a to­tal God, Holy Spirit thing,” said Gagliano, who hap­pened to leave class early that day to go to buy a text­book.

“God saved his life,” said Valli Smith, whose fa­ther-in-law, a po­lice of­fi­cer, had run into the build­ing as the shoot­ing con­tin­ued de­spite not hav­ing had time to grab his bul­let­proof vest.

But there were also harder events to rec­on­cile — such as what hap­pened to Moore, who had been ac­tive in the Ad­ven­tist church and whose fi­nal Face­book posts had been about her faith.

“From the time I met her, she has al­ways loved the Lord,” said one of her friends, Teresa Oak­ley, 53. “It wasn’t re­li­gion she was into, but Je­sus Christ.”

Oak­ley said Moore had worked as a care­giver, driv­ing se­nior cit­i­zens to doc­tors’ ap­point­ments and help­ing peo­ple who were not able to get around. But in the past sev­eral years, Moore her­self had been bat­tling health is­sues and had been in and out of a wheel­chair.

“It just sug­gests that evil is run­ning ram­pant,” Oak­ley said of Moore’s death. “Un­for­tu­nately, when peo­ple have it in their minds to kill, they’re go­ing to kill.”

In front of his con­gre­ga­tion, Wib­berd­ing put it another way. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We have to grieve, re­cover, re­build and then build. That’s what we do.”

Their church had be­gun from next to noth­ing — 12 lo­cal fam­i­lies that rented space in a lo­cal gym, un­til they could save enough money to buy a sim­ple build­ing out­side of town, a Moose Lodge that had been sit­ting va­cant for five years. The Moose Lodge bar had be­come the Bi­ble study area. The din­ing room had be­come a pulpit. The con­gre­ga­tion had grown to 20 peo­ple, then 50, and then more than 100.

Now, on a video screen at the front of the room, they put up the names of the nine peo­ple who had been shot at the com­mu­nity col­lege up the road. A se­nior church mem­ber took the mi­cro­phone and read the names aloud, one af­ter the next. One had been a faith­ful Ad­ven­tist. Another had just started at­tend­ing a lo­cal evan­gel­i­cal church. Another had regularly gone to a Bi­ble group in a nearby town.

“We must honor them,” a church mem­ber said, and then Wib­berd­ing re­turned to the front of the room for a fi­nal prayer.

“Think about the as­sur­ance we have, when we have faith,” he said. “The at­tacks may come, the gun might be pointed, but when that ques­tion comes — ‘Are you Chris­tian?’ — we can be cer­tain.”

“If he had been point­ing that gun at you . . . what would you have said?”

Lon­nie Wib­berd­ing, Ad­ven­tist pas­tor

PHOTOS BY LEAH NASH FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

So­nia Gagliano, top, prays and sings be­fore the ser­mon at Turn­ing Point Ad­ven­tist Com­mu­nity Church in Rose­burg, Ore. The fo­cus of the ser­vice was prayers for the vic­tims and fam­i­lies in­volved in Thurs­day’s mass shoot­ing at nearby Um­pqua Com­mu­nity Col­lege. Pas­tor Lon­nie Wib­berd­ing, above, of­fered a ser­mon ti­tled “As­sured Sal­va­tion” dur­ing the ser­vice. To mem­bers of the church com­mu­nity, the tar­get of the latest mass shoot­ing was their Chris­tian faith.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.