- (Photo: AP Images / The St. Louis Post Dispatch,John L. White)
- (Photo: AP Images / St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)
- (Photo: AP Images / Edwardsville Intelligencer, Marci Winters-McLaughlin)
- (Photo: AP Images / Jeff Roberson)
The son of evangelist Billy Graham responded to the death of a pastor of an Illinois church, who was shot at church Sunday while preaching from the pulpit.
Franklin Graham, president and CEO of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said he knew Pastor Fred Winters because the organization was collaborating with pastors around the St. Louis area on a youth evangelistic concert that was scheduled to be held in the area in August.
"I am deeply saddened at this tragic loss," Graham, who was in London when he received the news, said in a statement. "Our prayers go out to Pastor Winters' wife, Cyndie Lee, and their two children, Alysia Grace and Cassidy Hope, as well as the others wounded and all of those affected by this senseless act of violence today."
"It was my joy to meet Pastor Winters recently while I was in St. Louis," added Graham. "I was looking forward to working with him this summer. His presence will be sorely missed."
Graham, who also heads evangelistic relief organization Samaritan's Purse, was on his way home to the United States after meeting last week with the Sudanese on issues including religious freedom, human rights, extended focus on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and the complexities of Darfur.
"At a time when the world is experiencing so much suffering, an event like this underscores our need to place our trust and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ," said the evangelist.
A gunman walked down the aisle of First Baptist Church of Maryville during the early morning service on Sunday, exchanged words with Winters and opened fire, according to Illinois State Police.
The pastor, who has led the church for 22 years, deflected the first bullet shot with his Bible, according to reports by police.
"It hit the very top of the Bible and exploded the top of the Bible into what many in the congregation thought was confetti. In fact, some thought it was some type of skit or some type of program at the time," Larry Trent, director of the Illinois State Police, said during a news conference, according to an ABC News affiliate station in Chicago.
The gunman continued shooting at the pastor before his gun jammed, police say. Winters was shot three times.
At first, some churchgoers thought it was a skit.
But two church members who realized the situation tackled the gunman as he pulled out a knife. All three were wounded. One church member underwent surgery at a nearby hospital while the other was treated for non-life threatening injuries and released. The gunman also underwent surgery.
The gunman was identified as a 27-year-old from Troy, Ill.
The police are still looking for a motive for the shooting.
The some 150 worshippers attending the service did not seem to recognize the gunman.
A statement released by the First Baptist Church asked for prayers and reiterated the church's commitment to the Bible.
"In this day, where uncertainty seems to abound creating an environment in which people are vulnerable in doing things they might not do otherwise, one thing is certain, we, as human beings need a foundation upon which we can live our lives," stated the 1,200-member Maryville church.
"We at First Baptist Maryville, along with other Christian believers, share this conviction: that foundation is God’s Word. In the pages of the Book we call the Bible, we find the pathway for peace, hope, and a quality of living life despite what circumstances we find ourselves in."
Nate Adams, executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association, where Winters was president, said in a statement that he didn't believe God was "surprised" by this incident.
"That He allows evil and free will to have their way in tragedies like this is a mystery in many ways," said Adams. "But we know we can trust Him no matter what, and draw close to Him in any circumstances. Let's draw closer to Him and to one another during this terrible tragedy, and renew our faith and obedience to His purposes for however many days we have remaining to serve Him."
Hundreds attended an evening prayer service, held at nearby Metro Community Church in Edwardsville.
"We need to reassure our hearts and reinforce our minds that Pastor Fred is in that place that we call heaven," said the Rev. Mark Jones, worship music pastor of First Baptist, according to The Associated Press. "Church, evil does exist. Today, we saw the visible results of evil and its influence."
Meanwhile, a public safety and security professional with experience working for a Christian ministry said the church shooting is not an isolated incident.
"This most recent violent incident against a Christian church in a small town in downstate Illinois is another reminder that these incidents are not going to stop and can occur anywhere, at any time," said Jeffrey Hawkins, executive director of the Christian Security Network, which provides security planning and emergency preparedness for Christian churches, ministries, schools and missionaries.
Just this year, the organization said it has tracked 139 incidents in 31 states against Christian churches, schools and ministries.
"The only recourse that churches have to is to acknowledge that it can happen to them and to be prepared," stated Hawkins.