It was the kind of tragedy that could have destroyed a church. But nearly 20 years after a man opened fire in Fort Worth's Wedgwood Baptist Church, killing seven and wounding seven more before he turned his gun on himself, the congregation is stronger than ever.
Its path to healing was a combination of faith and a commitment to facing the trauma head on.
“This was a horrific event, and we lost seven wonderful people, and a lot of events like this cause scatter.," said Jay Fannin, Wedgwood’s minister to students and recreation. "Churches that have had bus crashes just stop being churches; they’ve broken up and people have gone different ways."
Sept. 15, 1999, was a Wednesday night. That’s Bible study night at most churches, but it was busier than a typical Wednesday at the red brick church tucked away in a residential neighborhood in south Fort Worth.
Students from churches around Fort Worth had taken part in "See You at the Pole" events earlier that day, an annual event where Christian students nationwide circle around their school’s flagpole to pray. That evening, more than 100 people from several churches had gathered in Wedgwood’s sanctuary to celebrate the day.
When the gunman entered the church, they were watching a Christian rock band perform.
Fannin was in the balcony when the first shots rang out. He thought it was a practical joke – firecrackers or something – so he went downstairs ready to discipline.
“I got to the bottom of the stairs in the hallway, saw blood on the ground, saw some smoke in the hallway that wasn’t normal,” he recalls. “And then I realized [after] someone said ‘Call 911’ that this was real.”
A 47-year-old man had entered the church and started shooting. He made his way into the sanctuary – firing into the crowd of singing students and setting off a pipe bomb. Then, he sat down in a pew and killed himself.
As people fled the sanctuary, Fannin rushed in. He moved from body to body, checking pulses, looking for injured survivors.
“We didn’t find anyone [alive] in here at the time,” Fannin said, 20 years later standing in the empty church.
Four of the victims were teenagers. The oldest was 35.
When Al Meredith, then the church’s lead pastor, got the church, he says it was a beehive of activity. He’d just returned to town following his own mother’s funeral and says he was emotionally numb as he started navigating the chaos of the next hours and days.
Early on – between comforting parents of victims and ministering to survivors, amid updates on the police investigation, countless media interviews and before funeral arrangements were finalized – the church’s leaders decided they’d hold a Sunday service, four days after the shooting. Meredith says they didn’t want to “give an inch to the darkness.”
One little girl, he says, refused to go back to the church until she was given permission to wear her tennis shoes, in case she had to run away. To Meredith, what matters is that she came back in and faced the trauma.
“When you talk about it, when you talk through it, when you cry about it, when you hold onto each other and all you can do is cry, that’s healing. That makes it so that tragedy doesn’t control you, you can control it,” he said.
And so, as soon as police had released the crime scene, volunteers went to work patching bullet and shrapnel holes and painting the walls. The blood-soaked carpet was ripped out. Folding chairs replaced ruined pews.
In his sermon that Sunday, Meredith told a jam-packed church that, “this tragedy that the devil wanted to use to stop the people of God has ended up strengthening us, our church has never been more united.”
And he preached forgiveness, calling the shooter – Larry Gene Ashbrook – a “poor man” who was “in the power of the prince of darkness.”
Meredith says today that he did expect some in the church to struggle with forgiveness – especially in the immediate aftermath of the shooting – but he says it’s incumbent on Christians to forgive.
“Forgiveness is not a feeling. Don’t wait till you feel like it, you may never feel like it. You choose to forgive no matter what,” Meredith says. “To refuse to forgive is insisting on drinking the poison meant for your worst enemy, because it only destroys you.”
Fannin says he never lost his faith, and points to several pieces of evidence that prove to him that God was present that night: A bullet that whizzed across a room full of kids but didn’t hit anybody; a pipe bomb exploded but didn’t injure anyone; that the survivors recall the room being well-lit even though the lights were off.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t struggle. In the months following the shooting, Fannin imagined himself fighting the shooter: in the church, in a park, wherever. When he imagined the shooter in his home late one night, he hit a breaking point: “I needed the Lord to come and take this intangible feeling of not being able to protect the kids that night.”
Meredith – Brother Al, as he’s called in the church – says he still hears from people who struggle with the memory of the shooting. But he thinks the church’s head-on approach to the tragedy helped people move past the trauma, even if he knows they’ll never get over it.
“It still hurts, but it hurts a little less each time. And the grief isn’t quite so deep. And the sorrow doesn’t last as long,” he says.
Meredith also insisted his staff get counseling. After the shooting, teens who’d survived the shooting were given markers and allowed to tag the bare concrete floors in the church sanctuary, writing messages to the shooter and to their friends who he’d killed. Thousands of letters of love and support and comfort came in from around the world, and were pasted to every inch of the church’s walls.
In 1999, the Wedgwood church shooting shocked the nation, like the Columbine High School shooting just months before.
“We’re hardly get shocked anymore,” Meredith says. “Two in one weekend recently: El Paso and Dayton. And after three days, it’s old news. And all our thoughts and prayers, that’s about all we can conjure up for the victims. There’s something tragically wrong with that.”
This week, though, Meredith’s focused on marking the anniversary. He’s retired, but will preach a sermon again on Sunday morning and will tell the congregation that even out of the darkest, most difficult events, God can make good happen.
Jay Fannin, still the church’s youth minister, says that’s the story that his church has to tell, even as questions still linger about why a man opened fire there 20 years ago.
“I still don’t know why he did it. Why did he drive by five or six churches before he came to Wedgwood to do this? Why did he pick Wedgwood when he wasn’t part of Wedgwood?” he says.
The answers died with the shooter. But that’s not the point, Fannin says.
“The reality is [those questions] don’t matter. They don’t matter because it still happened, and God redeemed this difficult, horrible situation and made better people for it.”