Roseburg Pastors: ‘This Is Our 9/11’

Ministers ask for prayer as they counsel mourners, prepare for funerals.
Roseburg Pastors: ‘This Is Our 9/11’
Image: Ryan Kang / Associated Press

For Jerry Smart, the past 24 hours in Roseburg, Oregon, have been filled with tears, anger, and hours of anxious waiting.

Smart, senior pastor of Foursquare Gospel Center in nearby Winston, spent most of Thursday afternoon at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, counseling students from Umpqua Community College, where the shooting took place.

Some were grieving. Some were still in shock after escaping the attack that left nine people dead.

Students were bussed to the fairgrounds, having left their cars, backpacks, and cell phones behind.

“One woman got off the bus and was crying uncontrollably," Smart told CT. “She told me that 30 minutes earlier, her friend died in her arms.”

It was there that Smart first heard that the gunman, whom police identified as Chris Harper Mercer, had asked students if they were Christians before shooting them. Other pastors whom CT spoke with recalled similar stories.

“He would ask people, ‘Are you a Christian?’” Smart said. Those who answered yes, according to the woman Smart counseled, were shot in the head.

The pastor later heard similar accounts on the news.

Smart was one of about a dozen local pastors, many from the multi-denominational Douglas County Evangelical Fellowship, who counseled students and other survivors at the fairgrounds.

They were joined by mental health counselors, emergency responders, and volunteers handing out food and water to students. A crowd of family members waited to be reunited with their loved ones.

There were many spontaneous acts of kindness in the face of such evil, Smart said.

Over time the crowd of family members dwindled until only a few remained, waiting for loved ones who never arrived, said Smart and other pastors.

“To see that remnant left behind with no answers was crushing,” Smart said. “All I could do was cry and pray for people.”

A lifelong resident of Roseburg, Smart said he still can’t believe that the shooting took place in the small, close-knit community, he said.

Last week, Smart said, he had preached to his congregation about persecution. He asked worshipers to raise their hands if they thought the persecution of Christians was getting worse.

“I was thinking about Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “Not here. We’re a little conservative community in a conservative county.”

Local pastors like Smart asked for prayer for the victims, their family, and their community in the weeks to come.

“We have a dozen or more funerals to do over the next few days,” he said. “Everyone will be another headline in the news.”

He also asked for prayer for the family of the gunman.

“I’m a human being, and so I’m angry,” he said. “But I also feel the love of God for the shooter’s family and the shooter himself—how could he come to such a dark place as this?”

The shooting hit home for Curt Crook, adult and family pastor at Garden Valley Church in Roseburg.

Crook, a pastor in Roseburg for 26 years, spent 5 hours at the fairgrounds Thursday helping to counsel students. When he got home, he learned of at least three victims whom he knew.

He said that the surviving victims will need prayer and financial assistance.

“This is not a wealthy community by any means,” he said.

Three local churches will offer counseling over the next few weeks to anyone who needs it. Other churches are organizing funerals and perhaps a community-wide memorial service.

“It’s all hands on deck right now,” Crook said.

Craig Schlesinger, lead pastor of Garden Valley Church, has been working mostly behind the scenes to organize churches' response.

Most people in the community, he said, are still in shock. The names of all the victims haven’t yet been released, and the full fallout from the shooting won't be realized for years to come.

“In our little community, this is our 9/11,” he said.

Schlesinger said the most important thing people outside the community can do is pray.

“We can feel those prayers,” he said. “If I keep talking about this, I will start crying on the phone. It’s encouraging to know that we do not stand alone.”

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