It was a spring Saturday morning, 31 years ago. In a midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom, a congregation had gathered to hear a leading ministerwith the "rank" of evangelistpreach the sermon of the day.
Though only in his mid-40s, the speaker's hair was already gray, his dress formal, and his manner authoritative. We were, after all, a lone island of "true" followers of Christ in a sea of paganized "Churchianity," destined to tread on the ashes of those who rejected the end-time message.
Something was bothering Roderick C. Meredith that day. I don't remember what it was, but I'll never forget his emphasis: "It's just plain weird, people! It's just plain weird!" he shouted, pacing in the front of the ballroom. We sat in rapt attention. You really could hear a pin drop, even if the floor was carpeted.
I wore down an entire red pencil that day, highlighting verses in a wide-margin, heavy-paper King James.
About a year later, driving a company Jaguar, he gave me a tour of the England campus of the church's Ambassador College, which was closed and would ultimately be sold.
Five years after that day, I shook the dust of Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, the church where Meredith was a high official, from my shoes. I eventually became an evangelical, and swore off Armstrong's iconoclastic beliefs that Anglo-Saxons were descended from the "lost" tribes of Israel, that Old Testament feast days were to be preferred, birthdays shunned, and politics avoidedalong with the Trinity, "unclean" foods, most medicines, and crosses. Oddly enough, drinking, dancing and, ultimately, divorce and remarriage were tolerated there although the latter in only limited circumstances.
Nearly 20 years later, I interviewed Meredith, now "exiled" from the Armstrong group because he refused to adopt the changes Armstrong's successors discovered: "British Israelism" is a myth, they said; the Sabbath is optional; tithing isn't mandatory, nor are the dietary laws. Christmas, Easter, birthdays, voting, a decorated tree indoors in December: All are matters of individual taste and conscience.
Meredith, still a courteous man, said he was standing firm in his beliefs. I reported that and his views in Christianity Today in 1993. While Meredith's story would surface every once in a while, it was a bit of a shock to me when Terry Ratzmann, a 44-year-old single man and apparently longtime member of the old Worldwide Church and then Meredith's Living Church of God, walked into another hotel room where another Meredith-following congregation was meeting, pulled out a handgun, and started shooting.
Murder in the Living Church of God
Seven people at the meeting were killed, including the circuit-riding pastor Randy Gilbert and his 17-year-old son, James. Four others were wounded, including Gilbert's wife, Marjean, who remained in critical condition at this writing. When a stunned congregant finally confronted him verbally, Ratzmann reportedly turned the gun on himself and fired. He was the eighth fatality that day.
Outside the small community of people who either knew of the Armstrong saga or its offshoots, the world at large probably knew little of the Living Church of God. It claims 7,000 members in 280 congregations, averaging about 25 people per group. These congregations usually meet in rented rooms: hotels, schools, Masonic lodges, what-have-you, following a pattern established by Herbert Armstrong, who believed that investing in local church buildings is wasteful spending.
The media was largely uninformed, since, following Armstrong's death in 1986, and after the WCG "revolution" of the mid-1990s, there wasn't much of a story. Armstrong's apocalyptic beliefs, tied to the latest headlines, were less important once the Berlin Wall fell and the "mushroom cloud" became far less of a threat. Indeed, since a 1978 investigation and "receivership" of the WCG in California (where, among others, the National Association of Evangelicals filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Armstrong), the group had basically faded from the scene. (Garner Ted Armstrong, Herbert's son, had been expelled in 1978, started his own church, was dismissed by its board after a sex scandal and, sadly, died from complications of pneumonia in 2003, heading his own, very small church group, which continues to broadcast his old sermons on cable and public-access TV.)
When the Living Church of God burst on the scene, few knew what to make of it. Jodi Wilgoren in The New York Times did a fair job, but still called the Living Church "a fringe group that advocates literal adherence to the Bible." In The Village Voice, Ward Harkavy (who usually vents his spleen at anything Republican) called the Meredith group a "Little Church of Horrors," speculating that the shooter might have been "driven past the edge by the right-wing sect's nonstop apocalyptic warningsa set of scare-tactic teachings similar to those used to great effect by the Bush regime's religious zealots."
I knew Roderick Meredith, heard him preach, read his writings, and spent time in his company. He's not a friend per se, but he's also not Jim Jones or David Koresh. He's a peaceful, gentle soul who gets riled up over his beliefs, but has never incited violence or extreme action. If, as some have speculated, a February 26 taped sermon by Meredith calling on LCG followers to get their finances in order helped push Ratzmann over the edge, I would be shocked if there was anything in this particular message that would strike a rational person as a call to arms. (And, indeed, it was reported yesterday that police in Brookfield have ruled out that pre-recorded sermon as having precipitated the crime.)
Because Ratzmann turned his gun on himself, we'll never know (this side of the Judgment) why he did what he did. It's sad that some in the media are suggesting a link which, frankly, cannot be proven: that a Bible-based theology, albeit one far less orthodox than most evangelical creeds, was the trigger for an extreme act.
Blaming the victims
It would be a tremendous stretch, I think, to blame Meredith's preaching for the acts of what seems to have been a madman. When Larry Gene Ashbrook shot and killed seven people, wounded seven others and then took his own life at the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1999, was Southern Baptist Convention leader Paige Patterson to blame? Hardly. There are, unfortunately, people in the world who are unstable, and who may descend into madness. Any other explanation would require an omniscience we as humans don't possess.
Still, this incident and coverage of it should be a wake-up call for every believer in every church. The scrutiny and false assumptions are especially noteworthy for churches that are less well known than your standard-issue Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. It's important to make sure you've made friends in the media and local government, who can then understand and accurately report what your group is (or is not) should any crisis emerge.
At the same time, believers in the midst of tragedy should be patient with the media and the world at large. One member of the Meredith organization, on a website to which I will not link, takes great issue with the erection of memorial "crosses" outside the hotel where the shooting took place. Why? Because Meredith and his followers do not believe the "cross" is anything other than a pagan invention; they assert that Christ was crucified on an upright stake or tree, and that crosses were introduced later. Another objection was to the view that the deceased are, at this moment, "in a better place," i.e., heaven. The Meredith-supporting writer emphasized his church's view that the dead are "asleep" and unconscious until the resurrection, casting aspersions on a heartfelt expression from people who are presumably of good will.
Neither the symbolism of the cross nor the question of the state of the dead is a debate I wish to enter here. Nor do I wish to disparage the sincerity of the other writer's convictions. However, it could easily be viewed by the general public as ungracious at best for people in one church to disavow a kind gesture from another, different church because those other people didn't know the etiquette that the first church follows.
In a time of tragedy, when emotions are raw and hearts are wounded, I believe it is better for all concerned to merely accept whatever condolences are offered with the words, "Thank you," and then move on. This isn't the time for an "educational message" about paganism, so-called "soul sleep" or anything else. It's a time to accept what is offered with thanks, and in so doing perhaps opening the door to further discussion at a later time.
Mark A. Kellner lives in Rockville, Maryland. His views expressed here are his own.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More articles about the shooting include:
Answers Sought After Church Group Shooting | It was just another weekend service for churchgoers in this Milwaukee suburb when, without warning, they began to be gunned down by one of their own. (Associated Press, March 17, 2005)
Police Release Tapes of Frantic 911 Calls in Church Shooting | 'This is a massacre,' one woman tells dispatcher as eight die. Killer's motive remains unclear. (Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2005)
Pastor, family likely targeted | Wisconsin cops say not all of gunman's shots were random (Chicago Tribune, March 15, 2005)
Church shooting survivor says friend took bullet that would have hit her | Hodzinski, 78, said Miller covered half of her body with his, protecting her from the shots. She didn't realize as she crawled down the aisle that one of the bullets had struck him in the chest. (Associated Press, March 15, 2005)
Search for wife pained shooter | Friends describe Ratzmann as desperate (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 15, 2005)
Man seeking answers after child shot at church service | Three days after an acquaintance walked in to a church service and allegedly shot several people, including his 10-year-old daughter, a Fort Wayne man remains puzzled about why it happened. (Fort Wayne News Sentinel, March 15, 2005)
Church shooting suspect described as 'average Joe' | When chipmunks got into Terry Ratzmann's garden, he set up traps to catch them. But his neighbor said he kept the animals alive and let them loose somewhere else. (Associated Press, March 13, 2005)
Past Christianity Today articles on the Worldwide Church of God's turn to orthodoxy and the subsequent fallout include:
From the Fringe to the Fold | How the Worldwide Church of God discovered the plain truth of the gospel (July 15, 1996)
Doctrinal Aftershocks | Worldwide Church of God seeks a new start in the face of fresh opposition (June 17, 2003)
Church Sells Armstrong's Works | Nineteen books by founder sold to Worldwide Church of God splinter group (June 17, 2003)
Unfair Use Alleged | Religious groups fight Internet copyright abuses. (Mar. 30, 2001)
Weblog: Worldwide Church of God Wins Control of Controversial Book (Sept. 28, 2000)
Splinter Groups Dismiss Leaders (Mar. 2, 1998)
Worldwide Church of God Joins NAE (June 16, 1997)
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