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 cried while sitting in the front row with her mother.
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 a shootout with police.
At services across Roseburg on Sunday, pastors talked about the tragedy as the community tries to heal.
A couple hundred people crowded into Garden Valley Church, where pastor Craig Schlesinger said living the faith means countering the rampage “with acts of kindness.””
Schlesinger also spoke about trying to make sense of survivor reports that the gunman asked who was Christian and then shot them.
“As those brave men and women were willing to stand and take a bullet for their faith… so let us bravely stand this day and live our faith in Roseburg,” he said, wiping away tears.
There have been conflicting accounts of Harper-Mercer’s words inside the classroom, and what he may have meant by them. Some witness accounts have said that after killing people who said they were Christian he continued to execute others, doing so randomly.
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.”
Also sitting in the congregation alongside Lacey Scroggins was 18-year-old Mathew Downing, who also survived Thursday’s shootings.
Scroggins’ daughter Lacey had told him the gunman gave an envelope to Downing and told him to give it to police. Randy Scroggins said the envelope contained a flash drive.
A law enforcement official has previously told The Associated Press a “manifesto” from Harper-Mercer was recovered at the scene. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Scroggins spoke with Downing’s mother, Summer Smith, following the Sunday services at New Beginnings Church of God in Roseburg. He told the AP the gunman told her son “‘go to the back of the room and sit down, facing all of us, and you’re gonna watch.'”
As the community comes to terms with its grief, pastors have been at the forefront of helping victims’ families cope.
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.
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 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.”
Over the past four days, Nutter and the other pastors have organized a web of support for victims’ families and the wider community.
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