|Pastor Al Meredith leans against the cross podium inside the worship center of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth. (photo by Jerry Pierce)|
FORT WORTH–Just a day removed from preaching his mother’s funeral after “praying her into Heaven” with his two sisters, Al Meredith sat on a dock near his boyhood home in Michigan, watching a freighter pass by and thinking to himself: “When I get back to Fort Worth, I’m going to need time to process my grief.”
A faithful God, Meredith said, knew what Meredith couldn’t know–later that day, a tragedy awaited that would thrust the pastor and his inconspicuous, working-class church into the international spotlight and would require uncommon composure on his part to console church members, plan funerals, and speak wisdom before a host of news media that converged on the church’s campus tucked away in a transitioning neighborhood of south Fort Worth.
On Sept. 15, 1999, a troubled Larry Ashbrook passed a dozen or so Baptist churches traveling through Fort Worth and inexplicably stopped at Wedgwood, entered the church building on a Wednesday night, and shot dead seven people and injured five others before fatally shooting himself.
Looking back on the experience is partly a blur for Meredith; he marvels at what he said to the media in the dozens, maybe hundreds, of interviews he gave in the weeks following, because amid the shock he couldn’t recall details of his conversations with reporters.
“And people would say, ‘Oh, you blessed me so much on the radio’ or on ‘Larry King Live!’ or Katie Couric. And this is the truth, I said, ‘Well, tell me what I said, because I was brain dead.’ You know, because of my own grief and emotionally being numb, I was out of the picture and so I was literally a vessel that God could speak through. In fact, I’ve gone back and viewed the videotapes of all those interviews and I can’t believe it myself.”
Meredith said the grief of burying his mother earlier that week “was God’s way of anesthetizing my spirit so when all of this hit” he was able to respond.
In addition, Meredith had himself been rooted in and attempted to root Wedgwood through his 12 years of leading the church prior to the shooting in “a healthy theology of grief and tragedy.”
That perspective was evident in the worship of the church prior to the shooting, and has continued afterwards, Meredith said.
“Our services have always been positive and always been upbeat, but there is a place for ‘It Is Well with My Soul?.’ And so the music is true, it’s not phony. We don’t sing ‘Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,’ because that’s not true. Even Jesus said, ‘Stand against the evil days.’ Some days are more evil than others. Jesus did promise us this?this is one of the promises we don’t think is too precious: ‘As long as you are in the world, you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.'”
It is a necessary part of the gospel message that trials and tribulations accompany authentic discipleship, a truth that Meredith said needs preaching often in contemporary churches where the Bible’s wisdom literature often is taken as a guarantee that God will bless people by protecting them from harm or hurt.
“Those aren’t necessarily guarantees,” he said. “And the ultimate purpose for our life is not a happy and carefree life. The ultimate purpose is God wants to conform us to the image of his son. And the only effective way of doing that, unfortunately, is through trials. It’s through tribulations and heartaches and disappointments that God knocks off the rough edges of our character and conforms us to the image of Christ. And it’s a painful process. It’s not fun. But far more important than what God does for me is that I can know him, the true and the living God and have a living, vital relationship with him.”
Meredith has been able to offer comfort through the church’s experience to others who are hurting. In March, he preached the Sunday following the shooting death of Fred Winters, who was gunned down in the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Maryville, Ill.
The Maryville church’s youth pastor and his wife were two of many seminary students who called Wedgwood home during their days at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth—a group numbering hundreds around the world whom Meredith affectionately calls “Wedgies.”
The brother of the shooter planned to attend a commemorative service on Sept. 13. Wedgwood and a nearby Church of Christ congregation were able to minister to the Ashbrook family following the tragedy.
Several of the victims’ families and many friends were also planning to attend, Meredith said.
According to Old Testament tradition, churchgoers will be invited to set small white “Ebenezer” stones on a memorial to commemorate the life of each victim.
“The question is not ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ The reality is there are no good people—there is none righteous, no not one. The real huge question is, ‘Why do good things happen to sinners like me?’ That’s the really perplexing thing,” Meredith observed.
“The verse that God gave me that first radio interview, that first morning afterwards, was Habakkuk 3:17-19,” Meredith added. “In fact, that’s the text I’m going to be using on the 10th anniversary: ‘Though the fig tree shall not blossom, though the fruit not be on the vine’—Here’s an agricultural society absolutely going down the tubes—‘yet will I rejoice in the Lord. I will join the God of my salvation.’
“And if the Lord is your source, then no matter what your circumstances you have reason to rejoice. But you have to choose to go on. And so you go on. It’s important you don’t deny your pain. And you don’t tell people you shouldn’t cry or you shouldn’t be angry. Feelings are. And nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to feel. Just don’t let your feelings determine your actions.”