That Saturday night, my phone lit up. Then again. And again and again. Calls and texts from my church leadership team came in faster than I could answer them. I was spending time with my family. Why can't this wait till Sunday morning? I thought.
They kept coming. Was the church on fire? Was I fired? Why were all our leaders calling me at once?
I don't even remember who I called back first, but I'll never forget the words. They were the beginning of a minister's worst nightmare:
"There's been a shooting at the church."
After the bullets
Within minutes I was on the freeway. I sped, praying over and over: "Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy!" I didn't stop praying out loud until I pulled up in front of the church. I was speechless.
The parking lot was blocked with emergency vehicles of every kind. Dozens of lights flashed, reflecting off the building's outer walls. Every news station in town had arrived before me. The media had come to see if this was a hate crime, a mass shooting, or gang violence. The emergency crews, like me, did not know what they would find. All we knew was that a gunman had shot into our fellowship hall where four hundred people had gathered for a community event.
I did not know how many people were hit, or whether they were dead or alive.
From witnesses and police, I began piecing the story together. A young man with a pistol walked into the fellowship hall, hugged a man—apparently a man that he had targeted, and shot him point blank in the chest. Then the gunman backed up through the door. As he left the room, he shot into the crowd, hitting four others in their arms and legs.
The shooter ran outside and jumped in a car with an accomplice. It wasn't long before a police helicopter spotted them, cars gave chase, and the two were arrested.
All the victims went to the hospital, but we had no report on their chances of survival. The victim hit in the leg bled badly. Blood stained the fellowship hall carpet as police stretched yellow tape to cordon off the area. They marked bullet casings, took photos, and interviewed witnesses.
Our guests in the fellowship hall were Hmong. Many of them migrated to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. For over three decades, the 3,500 Hmong in the Tulsa area have lived peacefully. Nothing like this has happened. People questioned whether this was gang-related violence or a hate crime? It was too soon to tell. The Hmong occasionally used our building for their community events.
I considered talking to the media that milled around. What should I say? But after talking with an elder and staff member, we concluded that our work was to console and pray with the Hmong people first—the television news would get their story regardless of what I said. Our work was not media relations.
Instead, I and a couple who had arrived worked to console the Hmong, pray with them, say "we're sorry this happened" and help them clean up the banquet. The meal had just begun when the shooting occurred, and food still steamed in large aluminum trays. The Hmong family hosting the banquet decided to pick up all the food, chairs, tables, and clean up. They left only the crime scene portion of the fellowship hall untouched, where some tables and chairs remained and little triangular bullet casing labels marked the ground between spots of blood.