Mark Oppenheimer was surprised to find how the scandal impacted those involved, almost 60 years later.
As the congregation at Heal the Land Outreach Ministries in Fayetteville, North Carolina, celebrated the end of the year at a New Year’s Eve watch night service, the service quickly became an intervention.
A man walked through the church doors toward the pulpit with a rifle in one hand and a round of ammunition in the other. Luckily no one was hurt, but what happened to make the man release his weapon and fall to his knees in prayer?
Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Reverend Larry Wright, pastor of Heal the Land Outreach Ministries and a Fayetteville city councilman, about what happened during his church’s watch night service.
What was on your mind when Gregory Boone walked in with a gun?
“I was up giving a sermon, ironically the sermon was on violence and gun violence across our country and in our local community, and we were talking about going into 2016 with a better mindset. I began to name all of the senseless killings that occurred in our local community recently, and this guy walks in. I saw the weapon and my immediate thought was ‘this is not real.’ I’m retired military so I looked again and saw the ammunition clip in his other hand, fully loaded, and I said ‘this is real.’ I stepped down from the pulpit and I asked him, ‘sir, can I help you?’ He said ‘can you pray for me?’ I thought as well that there could be another round in the chamber as he walked up to me. I could remember thinking, if there is I’ll take this round and subdue this guy and the brethren will come and get him under control. But he gave me the gun, I patted him down, and after he was clean I began to minister to him. I prayed with him, I talked with him, and the power of God hit him and he went to his knees and began to cry.”
On how he handled the situation
“I think the spirit of the Lord just spoke to me to call four strong brethren to come and give him a hug. Hugging together, he began to cry, and the spirit of the Lord entered into the room and it just diffused the atmosphere. When he was recognized by the congregation, when I asked him ‘can I help you?’ everyone was looking at me because I was giving the message at the time. When they saw the gun and ammunition, half the congregation jumped up and started to panic and move for the doors. Everything happened in about 30 seconds. I told the people to be calm, sit down, everything is alright. He wants prayer.”
Would your reaction have been different if the shooter were white?
“I think I would have been more tense, because of the situation in Charleston. We would have handled it the same way, but with more caution.”
On the shooter’s condition, suffering from post-traumatic stress and off of his medication
“I found out later that the lights were off in his home, his wife had been diagnosed with a critical illness. He himself said that he had been church hurt, he may have gone to a church in the past and had a bad experience with the church. In his case, he had a lot of layers he was dealing with; he was an ex-felon on probation or parole for a gun violation and he was a veteran with PTSD that had not been on his medication for three months. So he said he had come out with that gun to do something terrible. It could have went a totally different way that night in that church, it could have been a blood bath. But the Lord really touched me to be able to minister him, because I think my whole life had been designed, and God was preparing me for that moment. Being from Miami, Florida, with drugs and violence. Joining the military early and understanding weapon treatment and understanding disciplines, and being a Christian and being saved at an early age had brought me to that point. Serving the community and feeding the homeless and giving scholarships, I’ve always had a passion for the less fortunate and I always wanted to give back. I think that moment, my military training understanding that we are in a volatile situation and I had to protect those under my leadership. It took that love and compassion to deescalate a situation that could have been terribly, terribly horrible. But God wanted to send a message to the world; that God is in control, God is still real, and love conquers all.”
What kind of impact did this have on you?
“I really get moved by it, because it’s bigger than me. I think it’s a call of God, a message that’s going out to the world, to humanity because there’s so much killing, violence, hatred and racism and God’s heart is hurting. He ministered to me through that.”
What has happened with Gregory Boone now?
“He told me that day, after he left the mental health facility and got back on his meds, he said ‘pastor, I felt so much love in your church that night. I’ve never felt love like that.’ He said ‘I brought my wife with me today because we want to join your church and be baptized.’ We welcomed them in and he was to be baptized that following Sunday, but he heard that the news media had heard about it and he didn’t want a bunch of cameras and people there. So, he got arrested that Tuesday and I went to see him Wednesday at his court hearing. I was with him where they were holding him and I said to him ‘I want you to know that it’s going to be a challenge for you, but I’m with you.’”
What was he arrested for?
“He was on probation for a gun violation.”
You’re going to stick with him?
“Yes, I am going to stick with him.”
Will your parishioners be afraid of him if he should return as part of the congregation?
“The church is supposed to be the place for this type of thing, but because there has been so much violence and it seems like the church is under attack, then you have people who are afraid. It has nothing to do with color, we live in a world that is not black and white anymore. Spiritually, there has always been a spiritual war between good and evil, so we have to look at that when it comes to God’s word and God’s love and whose side we want to be on. We don’t want to be on the dark side, when it comes to Star Wars, but we want the Force to be with us.”