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Wedgwood takes donation from family of gunmancomment (0)

January 20, 2000

“It is good to know that God is with us even in the line of fire.” This is one of the few visible expressions of grief and faith scribbled by the church youth on the concrete floor at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, after the bloody night of Sept. 15, 1999. More recently, a tangible symbol of the grief of the family of the man who killed seven people and wounded seven others there — before taking his own life — has been received by that congregation.

Larry Gene Ashbrook, the gunman who opened fire at the church, had grown up in the Churches of Christ, historic rivals of the Southern Baptists in towns across Texas and the Southeast. The two religious groups have sharply disagreed on finer points of salvation and worship.

But when Aaron Ashbrook, the assailant’s surviving brother, gave Wedgwood $10,000 from the sale of the trashed Fort Worth property where his brother had lived, the family experienced some much needed closure.

He met the Baptist church’s senior pastor, Al Meredtih, at the Altamesa Church of Christ, about a mile and a half from the murder site, in an act that also marked a milestone in new relations between the divergent congregations.

Meredith, in an interview, said the $10,000 gift was comprised of three checks from Ashbrook and two sisters, so “each one of the family members donated their portion of the inheritance to the church.”

Ashbrook still could not bring himself to visit the place his brother had killed seven people and then committed suicide, explained family friend Lewis Ard.

So Ashbrook asked Ard to arrange a meeting with Wedgwood representatives.

A member at Altamesa Church of Christ, Ard enlisted Altamesa senior minister Danny Sims to help with the plans. The meeting took place in mid-December, some three months after the shooting.

Wedgwood pastor Al Meredith was accompanied by church administrator Mike Holton, the chairman of the deacons, and two staff members who had been shot in the September attack — counselor Kevin Galey and custodian Jeff Laster.

Among the present from Altamesa were Sims and Ard, as well as additional church representatives.

Sims reported Ashbrook began the meeting with a statement about his deep personal feelings of regret. After Ashbrook spoke, Sims continued, Meredith asked if he could lead a song and pray.

The Baptist pastor then began singing the familiar, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love … .”

The December meeting was not the first time the tragedy brought the two churches together.

The Altamesa church held a prayer service for its stricken Baptist neighbors the night after the killings.

The following Saturday, Meredith said, members from Altamesa showed up at Wedgwood to see if they could help.

“Our church was all at the funeral,” Meredith explained.

So the Altamesa members weeded a flowerbed in preparation for the next day’s services, said Meredith.

Meredith commented, “They’ve been good neighbors through this.”

Sims said, “It’s terrible it takes a tragedy to get us together.”

He fears there is “a truckload of … pent-up anguish over the divisions and animosities … between the Baptists and Churches of Christ.”

Wedgwood’s Meredith was unsure how the $10,000 donated by the Ashbrook family would be used.

“There are so many ministry needs ongoing,” Meredith said of his church, which is engaged in a $4 million expansion.

As the congregation seeks healing after the tragedy, the pastor senses a deepened sense of commitment, pointing especially to the zeal of the young people.

But many suffer. Adults and children battle depression, and members startle when exhaust backfire brings back the painful memories of gunshots.

“Forgiveness is a process,” Meredith believes. While requiring human effort, it is ultimately “a work of grace.” Forgiveness is not “pardoning” offenders, a concept Meredith associates with the legal system, but occurs “when you begin to see them through God’s eyes.”

“We’ll never get over this,” Meredith said, “but by God’s grace we’ll get through it.” (RNS)

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