People sniffled in the pews of New Hope Church here Sunday as Pastor David Ewert read the names of the nine people killed in last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College. Nine candles flickered at the Communion table near the pulpit.
“These candles are lit in memory of these nine individuals -- some of them your brothers and sisters in Christ,” Ewert said. “We are so proud of them.”
A slide show projected pictures from Thursday’s chaos onto the sanctuary’s front wall--images of yellow crime tape and a sobbing woman holding a sign looking for a missing student.
“My God,” a congregant mumbled as she covered her face with a bulletin.
“Embrace this pain,” the pastor said, “bring it into our prayers.”
This small timber town in rural southern Oregon has always been a place where crosses bearing the words “Jesus saves” dot the sides of the roads, and on Sunday grieving residents from across town headed for the pews to make sense of the unconscionable.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this town who hasn’t been touched by this,” said Jocelyn Harwood a parishioner at New Beginnings Church of God, whose pastor, Randy Scroggins, had a daughter in the classroom where most of the killings occurred on Thursday.
Students in the classroom have told of how the gunman, Christopher Harper-Mercer, asked students if they were Christian before shooting them. “We will all be together in just a moment,” he told students, according to the account Scroggins received from his daughter Lacey, 18.
That chilling query had special resonance Sunday as churchgoers tried to figure out how to understand it.
“Why? Why? Why?” Pastor Ewert’s wife, Julia Ewert, said she asked of God as she heard the news of the shootings. “How is this happening?” she remembers praying. “Give me more information.”
As dozens filed into the New Beginnings Church of God, Tom Muse, 70, said he had gone to Umpqua Community College himself years ago.
“What do you do when you take God out of the schools?” he said, holding a large Bible while standing in the church’s lobby and greeting fellow parishioners. “There’s no moral background to fall back on.”
Scroggins emerged at the front of the church and worked the stage like a showman in a dark suit and red tie—drawing laughs and smiles from the audience.
“We are going to focus on the most important thing of the day, and the most important thing of the day is still Jesus Christ!” he said. “The God of yesterday is still the God of today... We will constantly say God is great!”
The church band then launched into upbeat Christian rock songs as the room filled with energy, singing, applause, fist-pumping and floor-stomping to lyrics like, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.”
Scroggins said he refused to focus on the shooter. “I don’t focus on the man. I focus on the evil in the man,” Scroggins said. “He is dead and evil is still alive. So I don’t focus on him, there is something far worse, the evil that controlled him.”
Spiritual reinforcements had pulled into town a day earlier, when the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team arrived on a bus still coated with dust from a recent trip to California, where chaplains met with families who lost homes to the Valley and Butte fires.
Last year, the crew—part of an umbrella of ministries tied to one of the nation’s most famous evangelists—spent time in Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old, sparking unrest. This summer, the chaplains stopped in Lafayette, La., after a deadly shooting at a movie theater.
On Thursday, Jerry Naber, who handles ministry relations for the team, saw his phone buzzing with a news alert: Multiple dead in a school shooting in Oregon.
“OK,” he recalled thinking, “We’re going.”
By Saturday evening, the bus had staked out a spot at an outside concert venue in Winston, about 20 minutes from Umpqua Community College.
A coalition of local churches hosted a prayer night in the concert space Saturday.
Naber, who formerly worked in law enforcement, said the tour-of-disasters gig has taught him that small things make a big difference in grieving communities.
Ask a person, “How are you?” Naber said, and you won’t get far.
But ask them, “How are you holding up?” he said, and people will often share.
Naber’s eyes got misty as he spoke about details he’d read in the news and heard from local law enforcement about the gunman asking the community college students their religion.
“Part of why we’re here,” Naber said, “is to stand up for them.”
At the Saturday night prayer vigil, Pastor Jerry Smart, who leads Foursquare Gospel Center in Winston, told the crowd he planned to follow the local sheriff’s lead and avoid using the shooter’s name.
“Praise the Lord!” someone screamed.
When Smart recited the victims’ names and ages, the crowd fell quiet. Five teenage girls interlocked arms and swayed from side to side.
Two women sobbed listening to Psalm 46 – “Be still, and know that I am God” – and the crowd waved tea lights in the air.
Every shop in Roseburg, the pastor said, had sold out of vigil candles.
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