ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) — A pastor whose daughter survived last week’s deadly rampage in a college classroom told his congregation on Sunday that “violence will not have the last word” in this southern Oregon timber town.
More than 100 people gathered to hear pastor Randy Scroggins speak at New Beginnings Church of God, including his daughter 18-year-old Lacey, who sat in the front row and wiped away tears.
Scroggins said he’s been asked whether he can forgive Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, who killed nine when he opened fire Thursday at Umpqua Community College.
“Can I be honest? I don’t know. That’s the worst part of my job. I don’t know” said Scroggins, his voice cracking with emotion. “I don’t focus on the man. I focus on the evil that was in the man.”
Harper-Mercer killed himself after police arrived on the scene.
Scroggins told those gathered at his church that his daughter survived because she was lying on the floor and partially covered by the body of a fellow student. The gunman thought his daughter was dead.
Scroggins said the community has “come together with strength and courage and compassion. As if to say, ‘we will not be defined by violence’ …Violence will not have the last word in Roseburg.”
Religious faith is an important part of many people’s lives in this rural part of Oregon, called by some “the Bible Belt of Oregon.” In Roseburg alone, there are dozens of churches, and Christian billboards and crosses dot area highways and roads.
Pastors have been at the forefront of helping victims’ families cope with a grief that can seem unbearable.
When pastor Jon Nutter got a text message last Thursday about the shooting and realized how many had been killed or injured, he immediately formed a prayer circle at Starbucks where he was sitting.
He then rushed to open his church in Roseburg to anyone in need of counseling, and drove to the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where officials were reuniting students with family members.
As bus after bus rolled into the fairgrounds on Thursday carrying students, faculty and staff, Nutter and about two dozen other local pastors held uncontrollably crying students, formed prayer circles, listened to eyewitnesses recount the rampage that killed nine and watched tearful reunions with parents and spouses.
The pastors also comforted parents and spouses who waited for the last bus of students. Five hours after the shooting rampage, a dozen remaining family members were ushered into a room at the fairgrounds, said Nutter, who was also in the room. Officials notified them there would be no more buses coming.
“They had been waiting for a long time, hoping, praying,” said Nutter, pastor of Hucrest Community Church of God. “People were crying, yelling, some families were angry, others going into denial and shock.”
At Sunday services, many pastors planned to talk about the shootings.
“It’s important for us to just listen,” said Grant Goins, an associate pastor at Roseburg Alliance Church. “We don’t know how to grieve; we want to pretend death is not coming. We tell people it’s OK to cry, to give others a hug, to sing Amazing Grace.”
Over the past four days, Nutter and the other pastors have organized a web of support for victims’ families and the wider community.
Immediately after the shooting, the multi-denominational Douglas County Evangelical Fellowship, a group of about 40 Roseburg-area churches, sprang into action. An ecumenical prayer service took place at a local Catholic church hours after the shooting. Other churches led prayers throughout the weekend. Pastors offered grief counselling at their sanctuaries, the fairgrounds and at a Roseburg nonprofit. They are also preparing for funerals.
Associated Press videographer Manuel Valdes contributed to this report.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press