On the last Sunday in the year, Christian gospel, social media and firearm violence collided at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, on the edge of the Fort Worth-Dallas Metroplex and the Kingdom of God. Like many 21st-century congregations, West Freeway livestreams its services online, a ministry to Tarrant County, Texas, and beyond. As a result, Americans got a horrific glimpse of that moment when an “active shooter” bolted up from a pew, gun in hand. He made his move amid the observance of Holy Communion, that ancient Christian rite celebrated each Sunday in churches linked by the Christian Restorationist tradition.
In that sacred space, as the Body of Christ collectively recalled Jesus’ words of body and blood, life and death, the shooting began. It happened quickly, with two church members gunned down in a scene now replayed across the internet. Within six seconds it was over, and the shooter dead, his life ended by the church’s volunteer chief of security, who fired a single shot to the head.
Jack Wilson, 71, is a retired firearms trainer who received additional instruction for his security role at the church. The day after the shooting Wilson reflected on the difficulty of defending a congregation, commenting: “The only clear shot I had was his head because I still had people in the pews that were not all the way down as low as they could. That was my one shot.”
“We must resist becoming ‘morally anesthetized,’ accepting violence as an inescapable or even essential presence in American life.”
Wilson wasn’t the only armed congregant; the video reveals at least five individuals who immediately drew their concealed weapons.
Wilson explained that he had to “take out” the shooter because “evil exists.” He then added: “You have to be prepared at all times, at all places. And that’s what I strive, that’s the way I teach, that’s the way I want people to understand if they are going to wear a firearm for personal protection for themselves, or family, or anyone else they need to be aware that it can happen anytime, anywhere.”
He is quite correct.
The West Freeway Church of Christ had security plans and preparations that clearly saved lives, but not before two members died – a livestreamed, now digitized witness to the violent ways of 21st-century America. That witness visually documents deadly actions that “can happen anytime, anywhere,” even during one of the most sacred and communal moments of Christian congregational life.
As if to make a broader interfaith point, the Texas church shooting occurred the same weekend that a machete-wielding anti-Semite attacked the home of a New York rabbi as the ultra-orthodox group lit Hanukah candles. The unarmed celebrants threw furniture at the perpetrator in an attempt to thwart his deadly efforts. Five people were wounded but so far all have survived. Synagogues across the country have long been forced to put security plans into place. Mosques, too, no doubt. Now churches confront the congregational concealed weapon dilemma.
It’s the kind of country we’ve become.
The largest mass shooting in Texas history (so far) and the fifth largest in the United States occurred at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017 when 26 people were gunned down by a long-documented violent offender whose firearm background checks apparently fell through multiple cracks in the system. His actions were apparently prompted by family-related anger.
Prompted, at least in part, by that massacre, the Texas legislature passed laws extending concealed carry options for individuals in schools and churches in the state, two events that surely became a teachable moment for the West Freeway Church of Christ and other Texas faith communities that developed inhouse security preparations including the arming of certain members.
“All people of faith must reject any idea that such horror is normative.”
West Freeway Church lacks the neo-gothic architecture of downtown Fort Worth’s First United Methodist Church with its stately twin towers or Broadway Baptist Church with its soaring spire and great vaulted ceiling. Yet its rather nondescript “church plant” is no less sacred space to the several hundred worshippers who gather there each Sunday, proclaiming the word, calling persons to faith and baptism in Christ’s name and offering care to those in need. The church’s pastor reported that “on several occasions” they had helped the shooter with food and that “he gets mad when we won’t give him cash.”
The man acted on that anger, the security officer responded, and no doubt lives were saved. Now the congregation faces the challenge of restoring a sense of sacred, safe space where three human beings – two innocent, one demonic – bled “profusely” as the security officer commented. Is West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas – like Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas – not only a sign of gospel hope but also a warning that even a six-second horror can create emotional and spiritual PTSD for any congregation “anytime, anywhere?”
Is your church prepared?
Sadly, we know in our hearts that there is little or no chance that West Freeway will be the last American faith community to endure this kind of violent trauma. Yes, shootings will continue. Yes, in the land of the free and the home of the vulnerable, religious communities must develop security strategies for protecting worshippers. Yet amid those realities of American culture, all people of faith must reject any idea that such horror is normative.
We must resist becoming “morally anesthetized,” as the Spanish novelist Manuel Moyano calls it, accepting violence, especially firearm violence, as an inescapable or even essential presence in American life. We must hope for and work for a time when troubled hearts are transformed, all concealed weapons are beaten into pruning hooks and no one, saint or sinner, carries a gun in church.
To actualize that hope, we must confront the spiritual crisis present in almost every facet of our national and ecclesiastical life, working as diligently as possible to provide a redemptive counter-vision to the violence that so easily besets us.
Every Friday and every first Sunday of the month our church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, celebrates Holy Communion. Together, we hear and repeat Jesus’ words: “This is my body. This is my blood.” In America 2020, we are compelled to respond, “It’s our bodies and blood too, Sweet Jesus; ours too.”