It was during the New Year’s Eve service just before midnight at a Fayetteville, North Carolina church that a man walked in with an unloaded semi-automatic rifle in one hand and a loaded magazine in the other. Incidentally, the pastor of the church had just been talking to his congregation about violence, particularly violence and mass shootings against churches in the recent past.
While the loaded magazine was not attached to the rifle, the pastor was concerned that there might be a round in the chamber.
The armed man approached the front of the sanctuary of Heal the Land Outreach Ministries where about 60 members were in attendance. The pastor Larry Wright – or, Bishop Wright as the members of his congregation call him – came to him and asked him, “Can I help you?” Pastor Wright, a rather stout 57-year-old military veteran at a couple inches over six feet and 230 pounds, said that he was ready to tackle him in case the armed man became aggressive. But the man asked that Pastor Wright pray for him. Wright took the rifle and magazine from him and gave them to a deacon. Wright and the other deacons each embraced him and made him feel loved. CNN continued with the story:
“And then I began to minister to him and pray to him and talk with him,” Wright said.
It was 20 minutes before midnight, and Wright wanted to finish the New Year’s Eve sermon and do an altar call. He told the man to sit in the front row and stay there.
“I finished the message, I did the altar call and he stood right up, came up to the altar, and gave his life to Christ,” Wright said. “I came down and prayed with him and we embraced. It was like a father embracing a son.”
Wright whispered in the man’s ear that police were waiting in the vestibule because he had scared a lot of people.
Then the man asked to speak to the 60 or so churchgoers. He apologized to them, telling them when he set out that evening he intended to do something terrible that night. But the Lord spoke to him, he said.
Wright described the gunman as emotionally distraught even though his life seemed to be on the upswing.
He told the pastor he had just gotten out of prison, had a new job and a new bride. The man looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s, Wright said.
Sylvester Loving, a 67-year-old deacon, told the Fayetteville newspaper that the church was talking about gun violence when the man entered.
“I think that night the spirit of God was definitely in the place,” Loving told the Observer.
Wright said he was talking about “senseless deaths” in the community.
Sometimes, using force is the only option we have. I don’t know if Pastor Wright carries a gun with him. Lots of pastors and churchgoers do. Churches have been the target of mass murders, and if someone were to come in shooting, a concealed carrier could take out the murderer.
But I think that the way this situation in Fayetteville unfolded is ideal. If the pastor were carrying a gun, he could have pulled it out and shot the guy and said that he was trying to keep his congregation safe, especially in the wake of other church shootings. He would be applauded for protecting his congregation.
But the man didn’t come in shooting. He said that he had intended on doing something terrible that evening but was convicted and wanted to come to church. The church loved him and took care of him. Pastor Wright has said that he wants to keep following up with the man and help him with whatever he needs. What this pastor and his church have done for this distraught man is far more valuable than what a gun would have done.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way saying that we should never use guns in self-defense. That would be ridiculous. You know me better than that. There are plenty of times where it’s necessary.
But I do think that there are other times where we see an opportunity to show love and compassion toward someone we’d consider our enemy, and in those cases we should help that person. This man may have not intended on shooting up that particular church, but perhaps he was planning on doing something similar somewhere else. We don’t know. But what we do know is that this pastor took a situation that could have ended very badly and turned it into something good.