Terror In The Sanctuary

  • Here is the way one survivor tells it. When Larry Gene Ashbrook walked into the church sanctuary with his guns--a 9-mm semiautomatic and a .380-cal. one--he paused. He had already started a shooting spree outside that left two dead. But once inside he was approached by one of the teens who had been singing along with a Christian rock 'n' roll praise band. What the youngster offered the black-jacketed killer was heaven, saying, "You need Jesus." Ashbrook, 47, answered, "It's all bulls___, what you believe!" It was only then that he opened up on the over 100 defenseless worshippers, killing five more, wounding seven, creating martyrs.

    Last week's massacre at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, may not have happened quite that way. That's a version being offered by someone who was there, but it's unconfirmed. Yet even if it is pious invention, it gives a glimpse of the way some evangelical Christians, children and adults alike, are thinking these days about the string of killings around the U.S. in which they have been victims. Last week's toll was added to the count of Christian teens killed at Columbine and three students killed at a 1997 prayer circle in West Paducah, Ky. Many evangelical leaders have begun to see "committed Christians" as the latest victims of hate crimes of the sort perpetrated upon blacks, women and gays. They have also begun to view those attacks in terms of the history of their faith--as acts of Satan, and as part of a persecution that stretches back to the earliest days of Christianity, during which countless believers suffered and died for professing their faith.

    It's an explanation that allows the bereaved a certainty and solace in the face of a horrible riddle. And faced with the same endless series of senseless bloodlettings, even more secular precincts of America have been giving such claims a respectful hearing. After the shootings a moist-eyed George W. Bush said, "There seems to be a wave of evil passing through America." Today show's Katie Couric, interviewing Wedgwood's pastor, Al Meredith, listened as he offered the standard explanation for the crime: the killer was "deranged and deluded." Then, almost hesitantly, the pastor noted, "There's some possible theological, religious reasons you may not be interested in." Said Couric: "Well, go ahead." And Meredith explained that because of all the seminary students attending Wedgwood, "if I were Satan, and if I were real, and I wanted to deliver a death knell to the kingdom of God, I would target this church."

    The man wore jeans and was smoking a cigarette. The first person he shot was Jeff Laster, a seminarian working as a custodian who asked him to put it out. Next was Sydney Browning, the children's choir director, resting on a sofa in the foyer, followed by a young man who had been selling Christian CDs. In the sanctuary, the shooter found a roomful of adolescents, happily celebrating that morning's observance of See You at the Pole, an annual national event in which Christian teens gather around their school flagpoles before classes to pray. A band called Forty Days was playing a song titled Alle, alleluia, when Ashbrook was allegedly invited to accept the Lord. He moved to the back of the sanctuary, banged a door to get his audience's attention, and started firing again.

    At first, some of the teens thought it was a joke, a skit "to remind everyone how precious life was," says one of their parents. A youngster saw the boy next to him grab his waist. "It's just a paint gun," claimed the one who got hit. Both of them watched red ooze from a real-looking wound. "It stings," said the injured boy, still not understanding what had happened to him. People dove behind pews. Mary Beth Talley, 17, noticed that her friend Heather McDonald was not hiding. McDonald has Down syndrome. Talley threw herself on McDonald. Ashbrook fired. Even after Talley was shot, she continued to comfort McDonald, trying to keep her quiet. Talley survived with minor wounds.

    The murderer paced and yelled at his victims to "be still." He shot and reloaded, shot and reloaded. Only after he pulled a small pipe bomb from his pocket, lit it and rolled it down the aisle--it exploded harmlessly--did those who could make a break for the doors. Then Ashbrook strolled to a back pew, sat down and shot himself fatally in the temple.

    The police and other authorities who searched his home and his life in the next 72 hours found plenty of clues to a deranged mind. The walls had holes punched in them; the toilets had been filled with concrete; a set of journals dating back a decade itemized plots against him. Neighbors would later report about his ranting and exposing himself. Some speculated that what finally unhinged him was the death in July of his 85-year-old father, who had been the unemployed Ashbrook's sole means of support. What no one found was any connection to the Wedgwood church or its congregation.

    Some, however, believe they have an inkling. They suspect that in a secularized America in which they are a minority, evangelical Christians are being martyred for their beliefs. "I think that people are gonna have to count the cost of pursuing their faith in God," says Toby McKeehan, a member of dc Talk, one of the most popular Christian bands. "Something we thought was [just] history--people being killed because they had faith, people being martyred--is suddenly happening before our very eyes." Evangelicals have always admired martyrs, from those murdered by Diocletian to slain missionaries. But interest over the past year has exploded as Christians have made up an increasing proportion of the victims of mass murders. Last month McKeehan and his bandmates published Jesus Freaks, a catalog of martyrs past and present, written for teens. But the most talked-about new account of martyrdom is She Said Yes, the moving, nuanced story of Littleton victim Cassie Bernall by her mother Misty. Stores have bought 200,000 copies of the book, which came out last Monday, three days before the Fort Worth shooting. In the evangelical world, Cassie is almost universally considered a martyr. The Fort Worth dead, although their stories are not quite as pointed, will probably be seen similarly.

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