ROSEBURG, Ore. — Two days earlier, the pastor had counseled families of the victims, and one day earlier, he had prayed with survivors as they rode on a school bus to retrieve their belongings from the crime scene. Now it was Saturday morning, time to lead his church, and pastor Lonnie Wibberding stepped in front of his small congregation and bowed his head.
“We now know that this was an attack on all of us here,” he said.
Their church, Turning Point Adventist, was located in an old Moose Lodge a few miles from Umpqua Community College, where a gunman had allegedly asked victims about their religion and then targeted Christians during a massacre Thursday that left nine dead. Now the sidewalk on the road between the church and the college had become one long memorial, chalked with Bible verses and visited by prayer groups who sang hymns into the night.
It seemed to Wibberding and many others here that the target of America’s latest mass shooting had been not just a classroom or a college or a town, but also a religion. Now, in a church near the shooting, it was left to Christians to ask hard questions about their faith and decide how to respond.
“If he had been pointing that gun at you, asking if you were Christian, what would you have said?” Wibberding asked. “How much does this mean to you? Imagine you were there.”
Many of his congregants felt they could have been there. In a town of about 20,000, the tragedy was not “six degrees of separation, but one or two,” Wibberding said.
One member of the Adventist congregation had taken classes for two semesters with the teacher who was shot. Another had been in the classroom next door when the gunfire erupted. Others had lost friends or distant relatives. One, Sarena Moore, who usually attended an Adventist church an hour away in Grants Pass, Ore., had been killed.
Moore had been a member of an Adventist congregation for most of her life. Her faith had helped to sustain her through several divorces and a recent health crisis, friends said. Now those same friends wondered whether her faith had also played a role in her death.
“Those people who stood up, they are the bravest people in the world,” said Sonia Gagliano, a congregant who had left her Writing 121 class at Umpqua moments before the shooting began. “I hope I would have stood up. I hope we can all stand up now.”
Wibberding had volunteered to act as a counselor in the first minutes after he heard about the shooting, even though he had no idea what to expect. He had become a pastor in Roseburg a few months earlier, moving his family from Washington state, where he had been doing Web development. He spent the first four hours after the shooting sitting with families that hoped to be reunited with students, and then he stayed with the remaining families after the sheriff announced that the last students had arrived. “Grieving, just so much grieving,” he said.
And now, inside his church, the grieving continued. He asked members of the congregation to stand and share their stories of the rampage and their feelings about repeated attacks on their faith. First, in June, a gunman had shot nine people inside a Methodist church in Charleston, S.C. Now another gunman had posted anti-Christian messages online before allegedly aiming for Christians inside a community college. “We need reminders of the good in a sinful world,” Wibberding said.
“Prayer is what we need,” one congregant said, quoting from a text message she had just received from the mother of a shooting victim.
“I want to pray for all people who hate Christians,” another congregant said.
“My survival was a total God, Holy Spirit thing,” said Gagliano, who happened to leave class early that day to go to buy a textbook.
“God saved his life,” said Valli Smith, whose father-in-law, a police officer, had run into the building as the shooting continued despite not having had time to grab his bulletproof vest.
But there were also harder events to reconcile — such as what happened to Moore, who had been active in the Adventist church and whose final Facebook posts had been about her faith.
“From the time I met her, she has always loved the Lord,” said one of her friends, Teresa Oakley, 53. “It wasn’t religion she was into, but Jesus Christ.”
Oakley said Moore had worked as a caregiver, driving senior citizens to doctors’ appointments and helping people who were not able to get around. But in the past several years, Moore herself had been battling health issues and had been in and out of a wheelchair.
“It just suggests that evil is running rampant,” Oakley said of Moore’s death. “Unfortunately, when people have it in their minds to kill, they’re going to kill.”
In front of his congregation, Wibberding put it another way. “We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We have to grieve, recover, rebuild and then build. That’s what we do.”
Their church had begun from next to nothing — 12 local families that rented space in a local gym, until they could save enough money to buy a simple building outside of town, a Moose Lodge that had been sitting vacant for five years. The Moose Lodge bar had become the Bible study area. The dining room had become a sanctuary. The congregation had grown to 20 people, then 50, and then more than 100.
Now, on a video screen at the front of the room, they put up the names of the nine people who had been shot at the community college up the road. A senior church member took the microphone and read the names aloud, one after the next. One had been a faithful Adventist. Another had just started attending a local evangelical church. Another had regularly gone to a Bible group in a nearby town.
“We must honor them,” a church member said, and then Wibberding returned to the front of the room for a final prayer.
“Think about the assurance we have, when we have faith,” he said. “The attacks may come, the gun might be pointed, but when that question comes — ‘Are you Christian?’ — we can be certain.”
Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.