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We're Episcopalians; we believe in Jesus and we believe that prayer helps ...

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
June 17, 2022

Ten years ago, VirtueOnline covered the story of an Episcopal priest (Mary Marguerite Kohn) and her administrative aid (Brenda Brewington) being killed by a vagrant inside of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland.

The headline of that story was: Death comes to a Maryland Episcopal church.

Early Thursday evening (June 16) death again came to an Episcopal church this time to a congregation in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

The call for help came in at approximately 6:22 p.m. when Vestavia Hills police were notified that there was a lone active shooter at the church located at 3775 Crosshaven Drive. The Vestavia Hills police were quickly joined by the Mountain Brook Police Department, the Hoover Police Department, the Vestavia Fire Department, the Rocky Ridge Fire Department, the Hoover Fire Department, the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department in racing to the troubled church in need.

The church at that location is St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, a large thriving suburban Birmingham Episcopal congregation of more than 1,500 and an ASA of 400 served by four clergy. The church was founded in the spring of 1973 and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next May.

As the story started developing the breaking headline read: "Alabama Episcopal church shooting: 1 killed and 2 injured; suspect in custody."

As the evening wore on the headline was amended to read: "2 killed, 1 injured in Alabama Episcopal church shooting; authorities say suspected shooter in custody." Three are now confirmed dead.

The shooter crashed the Thursday evening "Boomers Potluck," a scheduled midweek fellowship meal leaving, one parishioner dead at the shooting site and the other dying at the hospital. The third shooting victim is currently hospitalized at the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham.

Death had come to the Episcopal church in Alabama just as it had come to a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas; an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; a Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa; a Chapel of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee; an Islamic Mosque in New York City; a United Presbyterian Church in Coudersport, Pennsylvania; a World Changers Church in College Park Georgia; a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and a Missionary Baptist Church in Dayton Ohio.

Also: a Jewish Center in Overland Park, Kansas a Church of God in Ashtabula, Ohio; an Assembly of God Church in Detroit, Michigan: a Living Church of God and Brookfield, Wisconsin; a Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; The Sacramento Church in Arden-Arcade, California; the Holy Ghost Tabernacle in Jersey City, New Jersey; a Keystone Fellowship Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Violent death is no stranger to churches just as it is no stranger to schools, the workplace, the marketplace, or military bases. Churches are a part of the American landscape and what evil happens in society also spills into a House of Worship's front doors or through the stained glass windows.

Just as law enforcement raced to St. Stephen's to contain, or eliminate, the shooter, the neighboring Christian community rallied around the shocked and grieving Episcopalians in their hour of spiritual need. They formed a prayer circle in the parking lot and took to Facebook to post their thoughts and prayers.

"I'm overwhelmed. And saddened. I've dealt with a lot of sadness but never anything like this," said Fr. Huey Gardner, rector at St. Mary's-on-the-Highlands, a sister Episcopal church in Birmingham. "It's just unprovoked."

"We are praying for our siblings at Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church after tonight's shooting," posted Pastor Stephanie Arnold of First United Methodist Church. "Lord, in your mercy, help our nation heal the harm we cause and lay down our love of weapons. Amen."

"Our hearts go out to all in the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church community in Cahaba Heights, following the shooting there injuring one and killing two earlier this evening," posted St. Paul's Catholic Cathedral. "As we celebrate the Holy Eucharist this weekend for Corpus Christi, let us keep all in prayer: the repose of the departed and the consolation of their families and friends; swift and total healing for the injured; justice for the killer; and peace for the community."

The Catholic cathedral also posted a picture of a lighted votive stand as a visible reminder that prayers are ascending.

Other posted prayers came from:

Our prayers go up for the congregation of Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church during this time of great tragedy. May God bless you! ---Dogwood Grove Baptist Church

Our prayers go out to the people of Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church in Vestavia. We pray that they will feel the presence of the Prince of Peace. ---Eulaton United Methodist Church

Our prayers are with the St. Stephen's Episcopal congregation of Cahaba Heights, who experienced a shooting this evening where three people were injured. The suspect is in custody. Let us be even more vigilant in our love and care for one another. ---Highlands United Methodist Church

Fr. John Burris, St. Stephen's rector, was on a church pilgrimage to Athens, Greece when he heard about the shootings at his church a half a world away in Alabama.

He's making immediate plans to return to Alabama and is grateful for the "radical prayer support and love" his congregation has received from the wider Christian community.

"I am working to get back from Greece as soon as I possibly can, hopefully in the next 18-24 hours," the rector posted.

In a short video from Greece, he asked others to keep St. Stephen's in their prayers for the coming hours, days, weeks, months, and even years as the church deals with the shooting in its aftermath.

"That is what we do as a people of faith," the priest said. "We come together in the midst of life and death."

Clutching his Book of Common Prayer, while struggling to keep his composure, he read the Prayer for Those we Love: "Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to Thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come; knowing that Thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

The shooting has disrupted daily life at St. Stephen's. So Daily Morning Prayer will be celebrated at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in nearby Mountain Brook while St. Stephen's is closed due to the police homicide investigation. St. Luke's is also organizing a prayer vigil for St. Stephen's shooting victims.

Vestavia Hills is an upscale suburban neighborhood in Birmingham. Through the years that neighborhood has grown into a small city and St. Stephen's has blossomed with it.

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has already offered prayer for the Alabama congregation. Friday, he travels to Charleston, South Carolina to participate in the commemorative service at the Mother Emanuel AME Church marking the seventh anniversary of the slayings.

He posted on Facebook an online litany developed by the Bishops United Against Gun Violence. The response to each petition was: "Loving God, make us all instruments of Your peace." Then he closed the litany with the Lord's Prayer.

Bishop Glenda Curry (XII Alabama) plans to be with the congregation on Sunday.

She responded to the Vestavia shooting through her Missioner for Clergy Formation, Kelley Hudlow.

"We're Episcopalians; we believe in Jesus and we believe that prayer helps," the Missioner told the news media. "Currently we are praying for healing and safety for all those that have been impacted and affected."

"It is shocking. St. Stephen's is a community built on love and prayers and grace and they are going to come together," the priest said. "People of all faiths are coming together to pray to hope for healing."

"We're connected to a network of churches across the world," the Missioner added. "and so we're getting messages from people from all over the United States and around the world praying for this community tonight."

The Diocese of Alabama's website posted this: "Tonight, what felt impossible became a reality ..."

"An individual attending a potluck supper at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, began shooting at a group of people gathered for the event," the Diocese explained. "We do not know and will never understand why this person chose this path."

The Diocese also posted the Prayer at Compline: "Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for Your love's sake. Amen.

In addition to the extended church family the secular community also responded to the Episcopal church shooting.

"With the tragic news that has broken this evening, I offer my heartfelt condolences to the victims of this evening's shooting at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church," Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry. "I would also like to offer thanks on behalf of myself and our Vestavia Hills residents to the first responders from all agencies who have worked tirelessly since this incident began."

"My staff and I are closely monitoring the situation in Vestavia Hills, posted Congressman Gary Palmer (R-AL/6). "Please be in prayer for those being treated in the hospital and for our community."

"As we wait for additional details ..." wrote Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-AL/7) "...I'm keeping those impacted by tonight's tragic shooting at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in my prayers."

"I am glad to hear the shooter is in custody," Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said. "This should never happen -- in a church, in a store, in the city or anywhere. We continue to closely monitor the situation."

The governor is not only monitoring the situation but so are the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco.

The Vestavia Hills police have declined to release the identities of the victims or the suspect and have not given any further details about what happened or the extent of the injuries to the wounded.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

UPDATED: Senior citizen charged in triple murders at Alabama Episcopal church

The charge of "Capital Murder of Two or More Persons" has been filed against Robert Findlay Smith by Jefferson County (Alabama) District Attorney Danny Carr. The charge stems from Thursday evening's shooting deaths Walter Rainey, Sarah Yeager, and Jane Pounds at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

The Dixon Law firm in Birmingham explains what the charge means.

"Capital Murder is, by far, the most serious of violent crimes in Alabama," the law firm posted on its website. "Capital Murder is a Class A felony, carrying with it a potential ten (10) years to life sentence or even a possible penalty of death."

Alabama is one of 24 states which still have the death penalty on the books. According to the World Population Review other death penalty states include: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Indiana, Ohio, Nevada, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Florida.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives the 70-year-old Smith is a licensed gunsmith from Vestavia Hills. He has been transferred to the Jefferson County Jail where he has been denied bail.

The booking mugshot distributed by police shows Smith with a blackened left eye and cuts to his nose and forehead. This is attributed to the fact that one of the participants at Thursday evening's Boomers Potluck supper clobbered the shooter with a folding chair to subdue him to prevent further carnage.

"More people likely would have been killed or injured had the shooter not been stopped, Vestavia Hills Police Capt. Shane Ware told the media. "It was extremely critical in saving lives. The person that subdued the suspect, in my opinion, was a hero."

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