MARYVILLE, Ill. (AP) – The Rev. Al Meredith was more than 700 miles away when a gunman walked into a Maryville church and gunned down its preacher in front of his horrified congregation. But the tragedy hit the Texas preacher hard, and he's coming to help.
A decade ago, another gunman fired a hail of bullets and tossed a pipe bomb down the aisle at Meredith's church in Fort Worth, killing seven people and wounding seven others, then calmly sat in a back pew and shot himself in the head.
On Sunday, services are scheduled to resume at First Baptist Church in this St. Louis suburb, one week after the intruder killed senior pastor Fred Winters with a bullet through the heart. Meredith was invited to be the guest preacher in hopes he can draw on his experience to ease the misery at First Baptist.
"I don't have three points and a poem on how to deal with tragedy. I don't have any magic formula on how to emerge triumphantly," he told The Associated Press by telephone from Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, two days before leaving for Illinois.
"If out of our tragedy God can use (that) that give hope and help to others, then it's not worthless. It's redemptive."
Meredith said Sunday's sermon would be heavy with hope — the same kind he says his congregants, called "Wedgies" — needed after Larry Gene Ashbrook's eight-minute massacre.
On Sept. 15, 1999, just five months after the Columbine High School killings in Colorado, Wedgwood was holding a community youth rally for "See You at the Pole" day, a national event in which teens pray around their school flagpoles.
The music was thumping when 47-year-old Ashbrook walked in with two guns, 200 rounds of ammunition and a pipe bomb in his pockets. He seemed angry, witnesses said, as he asked about the service and then opened fire at a group sitting in the lobby.
He kept shooting as he walked down a hall and into the sanctuary filled with several hundred people, cursing and yelling as he emptied clip after clip of bullets. He rolled his bomb down the aisle before killing himself.
Four of the dead were teenagers and the others ranged in age from 23 to 36.
Within days, Wedgwood was on the mend. The bloodstained pews were replaced, and bullet holes that riddled the hallways were patched. Four days after the gunfire, the church held its regular Sunday service in the sanctuary.
"The prince of darkness wanted to stop this church, but I didn't want to give him an inch," Meredith said then. "We were not going to let this stop us."
Some 20,000 cards and letters poured in to Wedgwood. So did 13,000 e-mails that "wallpapered" church hallways for weeks "so that when you walked through the church you could just feel the support and prayers from people around the world," he recalled.
Few reminders of that dark time remain other than a granite memorial outside Wedgwood's main entrance.
Tests found no evidence of alcohol or drugs in Ashbrook's system. Investigators said they could only guess why he targeted a church several miles from his house.
In Maryville, no obvious motive has emerged in the attack at the First Baptist Church. Investigators say Terry Sedlacek arrived at the church March 8 packing a .45-caliber handgun and enough bullets to perhaps kill 30 people. He also carried a knife.
Authorities say Sedlacek calmly walked down the aisle and fired once in Winters' direction, the bullet clipping the preacher's Bible and sending pieces of its pages spraying like confetti in what some of the 150 witnesses thought at first was a skit.
Police say Sedlacek fired three more times, hitting Winters once. After his gun jammed, police say, he pulled out the knife and wrestled with two congregants who subdued him. All three suffered knife wounds.
Investigators say they found in Sedlacek's bedroom two 12-gauge shotguns, a rifle and a box of 550 .22-caliber bullets, along with an index card marked "Last Day Will" and a planner that singled out that Sunday as "death day."
Prosecutors have charged Sedlacek, 27, with first-degree murder and aggravated battery. He is jailed without bail.
It remains unclear whether Sedlacek even knew Winters, a married 45-year-old father of two who led First Baptist for 22 years — one more year than the 62-year-old Meredith's tenure at Wedgwood.
"We have no idea what this guy's motives were," Mark Jones, an associate pastor at First Baptist, said of Sedlacek. "We don't know if we'll ever know that."
Since Winters' death, his congregation has closed ranks and opted to grieve privately. Journalists were allowed to cover Winters' funeral Friday but were barred from talking to anyone at the scene.
"Some people say `Don't cry, he's in a better place.' That's horse manure," Meredith said. "It's like telling a man with a broken leg not to walk with a limp. Nor does God command us to do that."
He says members of both churches should take solace in that outsiders have been blamed in both attacks.
"People say `Are you over it yet?' No, we'll never get over this. And neither will Maryville," he said. "But you get through it. That's the good news. You'll get through it."