"I want you to know," the Baptist preacher thundered, "that the most precious person in my life is a Jew. "[And] if I had what I was convinced was the cure for cancer and AIDS and I knew it could cure but I thought it might offend some people if I suggested it, how reprehensible it would be for me to keep it to myself. There is only one genuine source of hope, it is found in Jesus Christ. When God's people get right with God, the forces of evil will flee."
Thus spoke Al Meredith, pastor of the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, where just days before, a lone, delusional gunman had pumped dozens of bullets into 14 members of his flock, killing seven and then committing suicide in one of the pews. These words (directed to "our Jewish friends") opened his sermon on September 19, at a citywide ecumenical service called to honor the dead and wounded of his church.
Standing under a hot Texas sun before 15,200 souls in Texas Christian University's football stadium, the good pastor veered slickly away from the tragedy and chose that moment to further the Southern Baptist agenda announced a few weeks before to pray for "Jewish sinners" to denounce Judaism and embrace Jesus. It was not only four days after an inexplicable blood bath at his church, it was also the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest time of the Jewish year. The good shepherd proselytized to the Jews -- but didn't mention guns.
In a week marked in this city by little other than surrealism, Meredith's sermon might just have been the most surreal moment of all.
When Larry Gene Ashbrook walked into the Wedgwood church sanctuary, firing two semiautomatic hand guns and throwing a pipe bomb into a crowd of mostly teenage worshippers, then putting the gun to his own head, shattering forever the lives of 15 families and shaking a community to its roots, the response here -- from the governor-who-would-be-president to religious types to the daily paper's editorial board -- was all too predictable in a state where the "right to carry" is more precious than the right to live to a ripe old age: Don't blame the guns.
In fact, even the word itself was sorely missing from most of the rhetoric of the clergy and civic leaders in the days following the tragedy, although the killing of "1.5 million babies a year" in abortions was blamed by local Catholic pastor John Gremmels for such violence.
When George W. rode into town, he preached love. "I wish I knew the law to make people love one another. We'd pass it in Texas." But don't ask Texans, or the nation under a George Bush presidency, to pass any realistic gun legislation. On that subject, Bush was as knee-jerk as ever, dismissing more stringent gun control laws as "unnecessary."
"If there are loopholes in the laws, let's close 'em, if there are laws on the books, let's enforce 'em," he said in goofy simplicity two days after the shootings. Neither action would have kept guns out of the hands of Larry Ashbrook, a man with no convictions and no documented history of mental illness. Ashbrook bought his guns legally, and as easily as I could have bought a pound of homegrown tomatoes, at a flea market a few miles from his home. Bush ended his visit with these comforting words: "This is a time for us to realize that it requires a higher authority to heal the hate that exists in some people's hearts." Gotta run.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram weighed in with a September 19 editorial which said in part: "We'd love to blame this man's guns -- but we can't confidently suggest that passing more laws will keep guns out of the hands of unstable people." The Knight-Ridder-owned paper did come up with an explanation, however, for Ashbrook's actions. "In times like these, before the age of science, people would say that there was a scourge loose upon the land. Perhaps that's as good an answer as any."
A black-bordered, archaic prayer from A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, followed. ("Thou bringest order out of confusion/and my defeats are thy victories;/The Lord God omnipotent reigneth.") It was as if the daily had been possessed by the Baptist Standard.
Star-Telegram columnist Bill Thompson railed against the national anti-gun folks for daring to "exploit" the tragedy for their "own political agenda" by calling for more stringent hand-gun legislation -- as if Ashbrook might have shot at these people with a toy pistol as one wounded parishioner believed momentarily when he saw the blood oozing from his shirt and thought it was red paint from a paint ball gun being used in a skit.
Organizers of the "See You at the Pole Day," the September 15 morning prayer service at area schools that precipitated the church gathering that evening, blamed the Prince of Darkness, telling the Dallas Morning News, "These Christian kids represent a threat to Satan."
For most local wisemen here, however, the blame came to rest at the feet of the usual suspects: media violence, no prayer in school, lost family values, divorce, drugs, families who don't pray together and neighborhoods where nobody knows who lives next door. Not guns.
Mental health workers bemoaned Texas' back-burner attitude toward funding for those with such tormented minds. Which is true enough, but no one bemoaned the fact that there are enough guns in Texas for every man, woman and child to own seven of their very own.
Trying to explain the 47-year-old Ashbrook -- who lived about two miles from where I grew up in Forest Hill, a once rural, now working-class community a few miles southeast of Fort Worth soon got tough. He didn't fit comfortably into any of the molds. He hadn't fallen through the cracks of an underfunded public mental health system, because he'd never been in it. He went through the public schools at a time here when prayer -- and only Christian prayer, mind you -- was the norm; his mother and father lived together in apparent harmony until her death parted them when she was 72; they lived for 37 years in the same house and spent every Sunday and many a week night in the folds of the Church of Christ; they had close neighbors of 30 years standing.
Ashbrook had been arrested once for marijuana in the '70s but if he continued to use drugs it wasn't apparent when he died; the medical examiner found no trace of alcohol or drugs, legal or illegal in his system.
Yes, Ashbrook was a tormented, demented man, a time bomb missed by everyone because he gave no hint of the societal violence to come. "We didn't even know he owned a gun, much less that he knew how to use one," said Jack Hord, a 52-year-old truck driver who has lived across the street for 20 years. Even with his bizarre behavior, behavior that neighbors now say was "infrequent" (yelling at neighborhood kids for playing their music too loud, exposing himself once to some neighborhood women he thought were laughing at him, cursing at neighbors who looked his way and rambling on to an FW Weekly reporter about a vague conspiracy targeting him as a serial killer) Ashbrook never made any threats against anyone -- or any group -- outside his family. And that only after brother Aaron Ashbrook tried to get help for him and was rebuffed as "part of the conspiracy," Aaron told Weekly reporter Pam Humphrey.
"Most of the time he left us alone if we left him alone," Karen Ivey, 47, a neighbor for 19 years, said. "He was just 'weird Larry.'"
Without the knowledge of the extreme act at the end of his life, Ashbrook's behavior would probably be seen by most as weird, or eccentric, a neighborhood oddball whom everybody avoided, but not someone in need of a lockup in a psychiatric ward. "You can't lock someone up for being different," Ivey said. "Can you?"
No. But most sane societies make sure those unknowns on the edge of such madness can't get their hands on a gun. That means, of course, that no one in the society can get his or her hands on a gun. Would that be such a bad thing? If such a tragedy as the killing of four teens and three young adults in a church sanctuary isn't enough to raise that question in my beloved, now deeply wounded hometown, what is? What is?
Betty Brink is a contributing editor of FW Weekly in Fort Worth, Texas. Write her at 7600 Anglin Drive Fort Worth TX 76140.