Baton Rouge shooting stirs nearby churches
"In the midst of our sorrow there is hope that God will redeem even this for His good purpose," said Jeff Ginn, pastor of Istrouma Baptist Church. "What Satan intends to destroy and divide, God will use to unite."
The Louisiana church was about to start its first morning service July 17 when Ginn learned a shooter had ambushed officers responding to a call nearby. They quickly changed the order of service, focusing on a time of prayer for the situation.
A shooter later identified as Gavin Long of Kansas City, Mo., killed two officers with the Baton Rouge Police Department and an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputy before being shot by police, according to media reports. The murders occurred less than two weeks after two white police officers shot Alton Sterling, an African-American, in a Baton Rouge parking lot, inciting a wave of demonstrations that have led to more than 200 protestors being arrested, the Associated Press reported.
Though Istrouma decided to hold both worship services as planned, Ginn said the atmosphere was very different than most Sundays.
"There was an air of heaviness over the services," he said. "One of the points I made in my message was [that] Jesus had joy in spite of the sorrow He experienced. So we pressed on, remembering those who were suffering."
The church staff is holding meetings to plan their response, Ginn said. Possible ministry opportunities may include hosting a blood drive, offering church facilities for the slain officers' funerals and placing messages of hope on an electronic billboard seen by motorists traveling on Interstate 12.
If the church doesn't offer hope in this situation, Ginn said, it is unclear who will.
"Hope rests in the Lord," Ginn said. "The church is the one who speaks His Word to the watching world. We have to be His voice in this moment."
The deceased officers have been identified as Brad Garafola, 45, of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, Montrell Jackson, 32, and Matthew Gerald, 41, of the Baton Rouge Police Department.
Jackson's child attended the daycare at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.
"Our hearts are heavy as we learn the loss of one of our daycare families. Our prayers and thoughts go out to their families and all involved," a Facebook post by the church daycare stated.
Florida Boulevard Baptist is opening its worship center this week from noon to 12:45 p.m. daily for anyone wishing to pray for comfort, healing and peace. They will be joined by other churches hosting prayer gatherings throughout the week.
Thomas Shepard, pastor of the Baton Rouge-area Church at Addis (La.), and members of the congregation spent Sunday afternoon ministering to the family of Matthew Gerald, whose nieces attended Vacation Bible School recently at the church.
"I prayed with the sister-in-law," Shepard said. "We let her know we could meet with her sister [Gerald's wife] or their children to provide grief counseling and whatever else they might need."
On Sunday, Shepherd urged church members to pray for local law enforcement.
"After this morning's unfortunate events, I would like to call our people to prayer," Shepard said. "The officers affected in this tragedy are a lot closer to home than we expected. Some of our member officers were on the scene when several suspects were picked up in Addis for questioning in connection with the shooting."
Unity 'across racial barriers'
The day after Sterling was killed, 32-year-old Philando Castile, also an African-American, was fatally shot four times at point-blank range as he sat in his car during a traffic stop outside St. Paul, Minn., triggering additional protests nationwide. On July 7, five police were killed in Dallas by a suspect who apparently told officers he wanted to kill white people and was upset by recent police shootings.
Information about Long's motive in killing Baton Rouge officers has not been released, but Lee Wesley, pastor of the predominantly African-American Community Bible Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, urged people to come together and find a way to break down racial barriers amid the streak of violence and racial tension.
Wesley has made counseling available through the church for those who have experienced trauma related to the shootings of Sterling or the three law enforcement officials. He is planning a multiracial prayer vigil in the hope of unifying the community.
"Our goal is to move forward to a spirit of oneness and unity," Wesley said. "We have a common enemy, and that enemy is Satan, who wants to tear us apart. We want the world to see us standing together on the Word of God and come together across racial barriers. We want to say all lives matter. Black lives matter, white lives matter, the life of an individual citizen matters, the life of a police officer matters."
At First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, a predominately white congregation, pastor Oren Conner led the congregation to pray in its worship service Sunday for the families of the slain officers as well as Sterling's family, especially his wife Quinyetta and 15-year-old son Cameron.
Conner called all believers to pray for Baton Rouge in a July 18 column posted on The Gospel Coalition website.
"The God who saved us is the God who holds us together," Conner wrote. "There is much to do in Baton Rouge, and the churches in our city will be leaning on one another in the days to come. It feels like we've been punched in the gut again, and we need some time to catch our breath. But today, the people of Baton Rouge need your prayers as we groan for peace and plead with God to stir in our hearts a desire to be peacemakers in our broken city."
Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, echoed the call for unity and called Americans to place their trust in Christ.
"We are deeply saddened once more because of the brokenness of our nation," Page said. "Our hearts go out to the families of the brave police officers in Baton Rouge. This all points to the reality that without Christ, we have no hope. Legislation and education cannot remove the brokenness, but only Christ."
Pastor Jay Avance of Baton Rouge-area First Baptist Church in Baker, La., posted on his Facebook page Sunday morning, "This is such a tragedy that has befallen our city. Please pray for the fallen officers' families, pray for our officers serving right now, and the pray for our officers' families because this is very hard on them as well.
"Pray for our community, pray the Spirit of God will bring His peace over our city today," Avance continued. "Thank you Boys in Blue, may we Back the Badge and lift each on up in prayer, and thank you all for what you do for our community by keeping us safe, God Bless!"
'Flooded with emotions'
Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Director David Hankins said the country is seeing events like the Baton Rouge shooting far too often.
"Jesus reminds us that the thief, Satan himself, comes to steal, kill and destroy. Tragically we're seeing this play out before our eyes in ways we've never imagined," Hankins said. "However, Jesus concludes His response by stating He comes to give life.
"In addition to showing compassion to those who are grieving and our unwavering support for those who serve us through law enforcement, we must be resolute in sharing the One who brings life and changes hearts.
"I call on all Louisiana Baptists to join me in crying out to God for the victims and their families and sharing the life-giving message of Jesus. Our culture is looking for hope. Let's tell them where they can find it," Hankins said.
LBC President Gevan Spinney said he is "flooded with emotions" as he thinks about the families of the fallen officers.
"However, I sense an overwhelming peace when I think about Psalm 29:10, 'The Lord sat enthroned at the Flood. And the Lord sits as King forever,'" said Spinney, pastor of First Baptist Church in Haughton, La. "Then threaded through all of my emotions is a constant hope that God the Father will send a soul-stirring revival through His church as we fall to our knees and cry out to Him. My prayer is that through this chaos we will experience an awakening in this country. In all of our emotions let us not be confused, Jesus is our hope."
Call to prayer
First Baptist Church in Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, has scheduled a prayer service tonight (July 18) in its worship center. Associate pastor Jay Johnston, who serves as chair of the Louisiana Governor's Prayer Breakfast task force and as state coordinator for Louisiana National Day of Prayer, is calling churches across the state to hold similar gatherings.
"The Bible reveals to us that God created us with a need for others. Jesus modeled this with His followers to reveal the truth that we need each other," Johnston said, adding, "Our state and cities are hurting and the recent shootings and killings in Baton Rouge have accelerated the hurt and brokenness of our community."
Johnston recently challenged the people of First Baptist to read 1 Corinthians 13 each day for 45 days to learn what love is and then to practice it. He also encouraged them to tear up their metaphorical record book of wrongs. Johnston appealed to those without a relationship with Christ to trust Him as their Lord and Savior.
"I hope you will take the challenge to call people to pray, to love God and each other," Johnston said.