HESSTON, Kan. — Mennonite congregations and the wider community turned to God and each other for comfort and healing Feb. 28.
They gathered on Sunday morning and at an evening community worship service three days after a mass shooting at Excel Industries left four dead.
“It’s good to grieve together. It is healing,” said Jill Weaver, a pastor at Whitestone Mennonite Church, to the congregation on Sunday morning. “It is comforting to be in each other’s presence. Feel free to let the tears flow, if they come. When we worship together, we remind each other that God is present with us.”
In the evening, hundreds of people filled the Hesston High School gymnasium for the Harvey County Community Service of Sorrow and Lament.
Local pastors lighted 14 candles for those wounded in the shootings and four larger candles for those who died: Renee Benjamin, 30; Josh Higbee, 31; Brian Sadowsky, 44; and the shooter, Cedric Ford.
Keith Schadel, pastor of Hesston United Methodist Church, called it a day of sorrow and comfort.
“The miracle is that the sorrow, pain, anger and bitterness can be transformed miraculously by the power of God into compassion and love,” he said.
In interviews, Excel employees who attend Whitestone Mennonite said co-workers and church members were helping them begin to heal.
“The employees are taking an active role in caring for each other,” said Darrin Hiebert, a member at Whitestone who left work just minutes before the shooting. “This is a family company, and we’re coming together as a family.”
Matt Unruh, who works in Excel’s engineering department, said of Whitestone’s morning service: “It’s a healing time to have all of us here together and knowing that the community is here to care.”
Excel manufactures lawnmowers and employs about 1,000 people.
Kurt Horst, Whitestone’s lead pastor, said the congregation included 21 Excel employees and four more who were first responders or crisis counselors after the tragedy.
“They are doing as well as you could expect,” he said in an interview. “Everybody is physically OK; emotionally there is healing needed.”
Horst recognized the courage of the Hesston police chief, Doug Schroeder, who is Mennonite and was credited with limiting the carnage by entering the Excel plant alone and killing Ford.
“He was willing to risk his life to save lives,” Horst said. “We are thankful for the lives that he saved; we grieve what he had to do to save them.”
At Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church near Goessel, where Schroeder and his family are members, the worship service included a time of lament, prayer and candle lighting to remember all those affected by the tragedy.
“As people of faith we reminded ourselves that God is present in the midst of all our questions, our fears, our sadness,” associate pastor Linda Ewert said in an email. “This tragic event has implications that call us to wrestle with our theology and how to live in a broken and imperfect world. It is complicated. It will take time for us to process and reflect on how this impacts our faith and our life, both individually and as a church.”
Pain and questioning
At Hesston Mennonite Church on Sunday morning, Clayton Gladish, one of the pastors, reflected on his experience of praying with people who came to the church for hourly prayer times the day after the shooting.
“Lots of prayers were said for Doug [Schroeder] and Cedric [Ford] and especially for the families of the dead and injured,” Gladish said in an interview.
“They shared experiences both of pain and questioning and uncertainty but also the stories of seeing God [in the actions of others]. Praying together allows people to find commonality in the pain and questioning and also to find hope together.”
Speaking at the community worship service, Hesston Mennonite Church Pastor John C. Murray said that when we come face to face with darkness, we ask why. Our answers seem hollow and incomplete.
While knowledge and words are limited, he said, three things — faith, hope and love — are unlimited and eternal.
“We are here to nurture within ourselves and our community a life of faith and hope and love that has always been within us,” Murray said. “We are here to fan the flame of faith, hope and love, with the assurance that whatever darkness may come again, we can live with the assurance that the light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish the light.”
The service included Scripture readings, prayers and music by the Hesston College Bel Canto Singers.
“As we have offered our hands to one another this week, we have offered the hands of God,” said Wendy Miller, chaplain at Schowalter Villa. “God’s hand is already outstretched to us.”