On the evening of September 15, 1999, just before 7:00 pm, a crazed gunman entered Wedgwood Baptist Church and opened fire, killing seven and wounding seven. Among those were several youth who were attending a youth activity, a “Saw You at the Pole” prayer rally. From the time he entered the building, the gunman fired over 100 rounds from two different handguns, and exploded a homemade pipe bomb in the Worship Center where the youth activity was being held. The gunman then sat down in the back of the Worship Center and ended his own life.
In the years since this tragedy took place, there have been tears, sadness, questions, lots of prayer, and of course, healing. In the days and weeks after the event the victims, their families, and the church saw an outpouring of love and support, not just from our community, but from across the world. We received cards, flowers, quilts, Bibles, posters, and emails, among other items, from people who wanted us to know they were praying for us and they supported us. We can never express completely how much this love and support meant and still means to us. It brought great comfort to us all.
In 2 Corinthians Chapter 1, the Bible talks about God as our Comforter. In verses 3-4 it says, “ Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” We know that God was our comfort after the tragedy at Wedgwood. And as we continue to walk in His comfort and healing (because it is an ongoing process), His strength, His love, and His comfort, allow us to reach out to others who are experiencing trouble in their life, and be a source of comfort to them. And while we will never forget the tragedy of this day, we want to use the comfort God gave and still gives us, to comfort those He sends our way.
Our prayer is that you will allow God to comfort you, and that you will reach out to him and allow Him to be your hope, your peace, and your salvation.
In its broader definition, the word “martyr” is used for one who is put to death for adhering to some belief, especially Christianity. While these seven did not stand up to the gunman and profess their faith in the face of death, as many martyrs have done, they were unashamedly adhering to their faith by being there for the express purpose of worshiping Jesus Christ. Add to the list of Christian martyrs the following seven believers:
Kristi Beckel was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1985. Having become a Christian at the age of nine, Kristi was baptized on Easter Sunday, 1994. All of those who knew her described her as a happy person with a servant’s heart. Her parents described Kristi as a giving person, tenderhearted, easy to discipline, who enjoyed playing “slug-bug” and “shotgun” with the family and shouting goodnight to each family member after going to bed. She loved her friends, her family, dogs, laughing, singing, watching “I Love Lucy” reruns, volleyball, talking on the phone, having friends come over to her house, going on family trips to Colorado, and attending church with her friends. Kristi disliked doing the dishes and “rug burns” from volleyball falls. Her favorite Bible verse was, “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:5-7).
Kristi was a giving child so it was well within her character for her organs to be donated to others. Her name means Christlike and in her death she gave a part of herself that others might continue to live. With her parents, Kristi had been visiting Wedgwood Baptist Church for four to five months and had been participating in the church’s youth activities. According
to her father, they had been looking for a Sunday when they could join Wedgwood as a family, but every Sunday, at least one family member had a conflict. The remaining family members joined Wedgwood on the Sunday after the shooting.
Shawn Brown was born in Dallas, Texas in 1975 and raised in San Angelo. He had previously served as youth minister at the First Baptist Church in Bronte, Texas, and in seminary was preparing for future youth ministry. Shawn was a graduate of Howard Payne University, where he was a star baseball player. As a leader in the Baptist Student Ministry, he met Kathy Jo and the two were married on December 20, 1997. In addition to being a student at Southwestern, Shawn was employed by New Horizons of Fort Worth, a service for senior adults, where he was a mental health program assistant.
Shawn’s parents were divorced when he was thirteen, and he lived with his mom until the age of sixteen when his mother contracted terminal cancer. She became a Christian on her deathbed six months after Shawn was led to faith in Jesus Christ. Shawn later joined the Hillcrest Baptist Church in San Angelo and moved in with his youth minister, Emmett Corker and family. As partners, Shawn and Kathy Jo enjoyed cleaning houses, babysitting, house sitting, exercising, and attending Wedgwood softball games when Shawn was playing. Their favorite part of the day was when they returned home each afternoon after work. Before beginning supper or other activities, they always shared a time of laughter and fellowship about what happened to each other during the day. On their first vacation together, Shawn had learned to fly fish in Colorado, and both were excited about his new hobby.
In the week preceding September 15, Shawn wrote an essay for a seminary class and prepared a sermon. In the essay he said, “I think that as a minister, I will be sensitive to youth all around. I want them to know that they are valuable and loved.” He was living out this philosophy of ministry as he and Kathy Jo taught a sixth-grade Sunday school class at Wedgwood. According to Kathy Jo, who pulled up Shawn’s sermon on the computer, in that sermon from Hebrews 12:1-3 he had written about how we must run with perseverance the race marked out for us and fix our eyes on Jesus. He spoke of Columbine and of the ways that youth today are swayed in so many wrong ways. He wanted to help them see that they needed to throw off everything that hinders them so they wouldn’t be tied down to sin in any way.
Sydney Browning was born in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1963. She was a graduate of Grand Canyon University and a 1991 graduate with a master of arts in Christian Education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She loved her job as a teacher of troubled youth, and in her four years teaching she had been voted Teacher of the Year twice. The principal under whom Sydney worked said, Sydney was a really wonderful, loving, happy upbeat person who never seemed to have a down day. Every memory I have of her is a good one. Sydney had been told by her doctor that she was four pounds overweight. Since she was so thin we joked about it, and she was determined to keep those extra four pounds. My last memory of her that Wednesday night was of her sticking her hand in my plate and taking a french fry as I ate. I knew if Sydney was given a task, it would be done right and it would be done ahead of time.
Even though Sydney did not see herself as very computer literate, she tackled the job of learning a computer program for the recording of grades. Often threatening to give up on learning, she nevertheless mastered it just a few weeks before her death. Coworkers remembered that Sydney was very proud of this accomplishment. Quick-witted, with a great sense of humor, Sydney was known throughout the church family. Often on Friday nights she would attend high school football games where her married friends had teen- agers playing. On other Friday nights she would join the senior adults in playing table games. And she loved to be with the children. Wedgwood members and missionaries Kathy and Ken Woods knew her well. Kathy wrote: It has been hard for Ken to go through Sydney’s death. He knew her from the first day he went to seminary. I got to know her later on, and we roomed together for a year before Ken and I got married. She also sang at our wedding. She had just sent us a letter in May and a Prayergram in August saying she missed us. It is very hard to think about going back to Wedgwood without Sydney being there. I was so looking forward to her playing with our kids and getting to know them.
Joseph “Joey” Ennis was born in Fort Worth in 1984 and was a student at Brewer High School and a member of the youth group of First Baptist Church of White Settlement. More than anything, he enjoyed making people laugh, playing with his pet cats, and watching his pet ferrets fight with each other. Earlier in the school year, Joey had written a “mission statement” for a class assignment. He said, “My mission in life is to be kind and trustworthy with humor, always keeping promises especially as a friend, a son, and a pet owner.” It was this outgoing, winsome personality that got Joey chosen a few years ago to be one of “Scott’s Kids” on a local television station. In spite of his short stature, Joey wanted to play professional basketball someday in the NBA. One of his coaches said that although Joey did not have an abundance of ability, he made up for it with a great attitude, hard work, and a big heart. In addition to basketball, Joey excelled in academics, making high grades in all of his subjects. According to the journal found in his school locker, Joey had set a goal of making all As during his freshman year in high school.
Late in the summer of 1999, Jason Ferguson, minister of youth, and Jim Gatliff, pastor at First Baptist, stood in a member’s back yard where a church gathering had just finished. They were sharing the plan of salvation with a teen-age boy as Joey Ennis looked on and listened. Joey had just begun to participate in the church’s youth activities at the beginning of the summer. At the conclusion of the presentation, Jason turned to Joey and asked, “How about you, Joey, have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” To which Joey replied, “Yes.” Two weeks before the shooting, Joey was discussing baptism with his mom and explaining to her that he needed to be baptized because he had accepted Christ. He was a young but obedient Christian. When it came to Bible studies, Joey was at first a typical teen-ager, squirmy and giggly. But as time went by, he became more interested in the studies and how they could apply to his life. Then he just wanted to learn more and more.
Cassandra “Cassie” Griffin was born in Lockney, Texas, in 1985 and was a student at North Crowley High School and a member of Wedgwood Baptist Church. Cassie had been raised in church, making a profession of her faith at the age of seven after Vacation Bible School. She had played the piano and had always been actively involved in church activities. Cassie was faithful in reading her Bible and in January of 1999 had circled a verse with a cloud formation: “Whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm” (Prov. 1:33, NIV). She had drawn a bold box around the word fear. Cassie’s father was looking through his daughter’s Bible and concluded, “The more I looked at that verse the more I realized that it does not say you will live without harm, but without the fear of harm.”
During the week before September 15, Cassie had made a speech in speech class entitled, “My Three Wishes.” They were these: My first wish is to become a famous singer or musician. I like to sing and I love to listen to music. If I was a famous singer I could share my faith with non-Christians. I could contribute lots of money to charities that work with solving world hunger in third world countries. . . . Everyone has goals and I’m sure you have yours, so hold on to them and never let go. Cassie’s love for frogs took on new meaning when someone shared with her the phrase, “Fully Rely On God.” She often adorned her school assignments and letters with pictures and drawings of frogs. Kristen Dickens described Cassie as “a kind, caring person who wanted everyone to come to Christ. She loved to make people laugh and always found a way to cheer them up if they had a problem. She was always there for you. She loved life and everyone in it. She was my role model and my best friend.”
Kim Jones was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1976 and thought of it as home even though she grew up in Alaska and Houston, returning to Saudi Arabia when not in school. Kim was a 1998 graduate of Texas Christian University and an alumnus of Delta Gamma Sorority. An outstanding student, Kim spent a semester of her senior year in a study abroad program in Australia. She was chosen by the faculty as the most outstanding student in the speech and communications department her senior year.
At Southwestern Baptist Seminary she was pursuing a master of divinity degree. Always outgoing, Kim had sung Christian songs all her life, loved Bible stories when she was young and participated in many church plays and musicals. When Kim was in the sixth grade, she was baptized along with her brother, Tim, and her mother, Stephanie. Later, a very close friend was accidentally shot and killed by his own brother. Although Kim was not aware of it at the time, she realized years later that this event hardened her heart against God. As a university student Kim wrote, “I was raised in and out of church; however I really met Jesus when I was twenty years old. One night I went to a little church, got down on my knees, and cried out to the Lord. At that moment, I met Jesus, and he changed
everything about me.” According to her mother, “Kim reached a point where she could no longer handle it alone and she turned it all over to Jesus. Kim believed you could not be a Christian unless you were 100 percent committed to Jesus.” As evidence of this total commitment to her Lord, the last entry in Kim’s journal was, “I don’t want to ever lose the passion of being TOTALLY in love with You & You alone! God, please continue to stir my heart, make me passionate for you now and always.”
Kim loved her family. She and her brother were especially close and so often hugged that strangers would ask if they were dating. From January to April 1999, Kim served as youth director at a Baptist church in Hoensbroek, The Netherlands, through the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. After serving as a youth minister in the Middle East in the summer of 1999, Kim enrolled in Southwestern Seminary so she would be better prepared to serve the Lord wherever He wanted her and through whatever means He made available. On her dorm room door were the following words from Romans 12:9-10: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”
Justin “Steggy” Ray was born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1982 and was a student at Cassata High School and Learning Center. A devoted member of Boy Scout Troop 613, Steggy was elected into the Order of the Arrow, a group for those deemed the most trustworthy, helpful, and courteous. Steggy was also a Cub Scout counselor who had only recently begun to get his life’s direction in focus after struggling for two years. In the self-paced environment of Cassata, Steggy had blossomed, according to his teachers. A member of Westcliff United Methodist Church, Steggy had been baptized there as a first grader and confirmed as a sixth grader. More recently, Steggy had been actively involved with the youth group at Wedgwood and, according to his mother, “would probably have joined there by Christmas.”
After a minor run-in with the law, Justin had been assigned to community service and because he had been doing volunteer work since his elementary school days, he loved every minute of it. Partly due to his grandfather’s recent bout with cancer, Justin had begun to pray more and was growing spiritually. As to his life’s purpose, his mother commented, “The first day Justin walked into media tech class, he knew what he wanted to do the rest of his life.” According to Laurie Gayle in Southwest High School’s Raiders’ Review: At Southwest, Steggy found an outlet for his interests and talents through SHS productions. He loved it so much that he eventually set up a production company with a close friend and had hoped to become a media technology teacher later on in life. Even after he transferred to Cassata Learning Center, he came back to Southwest to help with various production shoots and visit old friends. He planned to graduate in December and was excited about where his life was headed. The eleven hundred people that came to mourn him did so because at some point in their lives he had made a difference. Known for his honesty, Steggy was once asked during a job interview at Office Max why he wanted the job. His answer was, “So I can get a car.” Two weeks before his death, Steggy had written for a school assignment, “Maturity is being able to handle adult matters without being childish. It’s being able to ignore people who disrupt class and other gatherings with stupid remarks just to get a laugh out of someone. Maturity is being responsible and able to have a goal and work hard.”
What will be the result of these deaths? Tertullian, a prominent Latin writer in the second century, wrote in his Apologeticus, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Reports have indicated that already hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have placed their faith in Jesus Christ because of the martyrdom of these seven believers. As measured by the kingdom of God, their deaths have not been in vain.
*Text taken from the published book form (now out-of-print), the complete text is accessible as an Adobe Acrobat file (.PDF): Night of Tragedy, Dawning of Light.