The Francis Asbury Society

Five Minutes that Changed My Life

Posted on | April 2, 2013 | 1 Response

by Erin Owens

Jason & Erin Owens 003aIt is astonishing how a few minutes can change so much. Within seconds, life can be brought into this world or taken away.

On September 15, 1999, a mere five minutes changed the course of my life. I was in seventh grade and attending one of my first youth group events. It was See You at the Pole, the day when Christian youth gathered around their school flag pole to pray. That night, my youth group at Wedgwood Baptist Church was hosting a See You at the Pole youth rally. My favorite local band, Forty Days, was going to play, and needless to say, I was ecstatic!

I eagerly arrived at church early and got a seat with a great view, only four rows back! As a teenager, these were the events I lived for. The band came out and quickly the sanctuary filled up as the service began. The evening progressed, and Forty Days began to sing “I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised.” At that point, there was a loud noise and the band dove behind the speakers.

I assumed maybe a speaker blew; I did not know what to think. Quickly, people began to duck behind pews, and I knelt down. My thoughts raced. A seventh grader simply cannot comprehend the fact that a gunman named Larry Ashbrook had entered the sanctuary. I thought maybe this was some kind of skit.

I hunkered down on the pew, and as I peeked up I saw the fire from a gun at the back of the sanctuary and I knelt back down. At that point, a voice—not audible but still very clear—instructed me to get down on the ground. I obeyed, even though I was sitting in a stream of blood. I still did not understand. I could not comprehend what was happening, but I had a sense of peace in spite of the death that surrounded me.

I heard someone yell, “thank God, he is dead!” People began to run, and I followed the bloody footprints out of the worship center. As I exited the doors, reality hit me. I heard the click of S.W.A.T. team guns, the whir of helicopter engines and the commands of the medical team. Fellow youth were already on stretchers. I quickly realized my mom and sister, who had been in other parts of the building, were nowhere to be found. I fell to my knees, and with my friends prayed the only thing that I could utter, “oh God.” My trembling, blood-stained hands covered my face as I cried out in desperation.

Soon, someone told me that my mom and sister were in the neighboring elementary school. The children’s director had guided the children—and my mother and sister who were with them—out of the church to find safety. As the director approached the school, all of the doors were locked. She prayed fervently for a place of safety, and a janitor showed up and escorted them into the building.

Later, as the director went to the school to thank the janitor, she learned that no one fitting that description even had a key to the school. God works in miraculous ways. Thanks to this angel in disguise, the children were saved.

I found my family, and we held each other like never before. News crews bustled around me and police attempted to gain statements. I could not even recall my phone number. After reporting all I remembered, we went home to face a new reality. I could not even close my eyes that night due to the images flashing through my head. Little did I know the struggles that would come.

It turned out that Larry Ashbrook did not plan to attack our church specifically, but stumbled upon it in a deranged rage. He had enough ammunition to kill everybody in that church building, but miraculously only seven were killed and seven more injured. He attempted to walk up and down the aisles, but an invisible force pushed him back and kept him at the rear of the sanctuary. He threw a pipe bomb, but it exploded upwards and no damage was done.

The terror finally ended because of the action taken by a young Christian named Jeremiah. God guided this man, in spite of his newness in the faith, to address the gunman. Jeremiah boldly stood up and as Larry Ashbrook pointed the gun in his direction, Jeremiah held out his arms in the form of a cross and said, “Go ahead and shoot me. I know where I am going when I die, do you?” At that point Larry Ashbrook turned the gun on himself and took his own life.

In the months following the tragedy, I was angry at God. Many nights, the fear and memories seemed too great to conquer. Honestly, I sometimes even wished I had been one of the seven. Numerous nights my parents sat with me as tears streamed down my face, my body trembling in panic. Often, the presence of fear seemed to paralyze me. Some nights were worse than others.

It seemed fear only grew as time passed. I boldly prayed in the name of Jesus for the fears to leave, but they persisted. Although it is not the best theology, I laid out the proverbial fleece. I cried out to God, “God, if you are there, I don’t feel you. It seems I am praying to a wall. If you are there, I need you to show me.” I let my Bible fall open, and I read the humbling words of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” It appeared as if I, rather than the psalmist, had written these words. They were the cry of my heart! Yet as I read on, the psalmist declared, “But I have trusted in Your mercy;
My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me” (NKJV).

That day, I decided that if the psalmist could choose to follow God even when it seemed God was absent, so could I. At this point, healing began. In spite of the arduous journey, God has never forsaken me. In both the dark and the light, God proved to be my fortress.

The miracles that occurred both on September fifteenth and after are too numerous to list. Hundreds of people became Christians in the light of this tragedy. The story of the shooting permeated into countries that did not even permit Christianity. Where our news went, the story of triumph through God travelled with it.

The day after the shooting, my mom went to pick up my purse and as she approached where I was sitting, she noticed a bullet hole in the pew. Had I not obeyed the voice to get down, I would have been another victim.

The shooting happened on a Wednesday, and that Sunday the congregation met for worship. Fellow Christians travelled for miles to walk around our church and pray. There were no carpets, pews were missing and bullet holes decorated the walls. In spite of the evidence of death, the church boldly sang “we are standing on holy ground.”

Primarily, God taught forgiveness. The youth had an opportunity to write on the cement floor before new carpet was laid. At the spot where Larry Ashbrook died, every note said “I forgive you.” “You took the life of [my daughter, my friend or my mentor] but I forgive you.” God taught me in a very real way the power and necessity of forgiveness. The gunman did not ask for, nor deserve, forgiveness. Yet, I did not deserve the forgiveness Christ offered me on the cross.

Forgiveness is not easy, it is both a choice and a journey, but God both commands and empowers us to forgive. Sadly, my story is one of many. Tragedy happens daily, but God remains a loving and just God. As Christians, we can rejoice because in light of the resurrection, the grave has no hold on us and death has no sting.

In this world, evil is rampant. Tragedies occur daily, and injustice often prevails. Yet, as Christians we do not mourn this reality as those who have no hope. Thanks to the blood of Jesus and the reality of the resurrection, we have a great hope!

This world is not our home and, for now, we are in a time of waiting. The waiting Christians are called to do is not passive like waiting on a late bus, but rather active in that we have already seen evidence of the resurrection and know that one day we too will be resurrected! Henri Nouwen wrote that Christians: “wait for what we have already seen . . . . That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. That is why we can claim that God is a God of life even when we see death and destruction and agony all around us.”[1]

The resurrection proved that God is a God of love and justice, a God who loves so strongly and in such a manner that God’s only son was sent to die while we were still sinners. The greatest injustice of all happened at Calvary.

The shooting altered my life forever, but God has fulfilled the promise to bring good out of it and ultimately, one day, every wrong will be righted. Every injustice will be brought to justice. Not by an arbitrary court of humans, but by the Great Judge and Law giver, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. On that day, death itself will be destroyed. For now, we are expectantly waiting.

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God’s Presence in our Lives,” Weavings, February 1, 1987, 12.



One Response to “Five Minutes that Changed My Life”

  1. Gaylon A White
    April 6th, 2013 @ 12:34 am

    Wow. Thanks Erin for saying what many are still unable to say. I pray that you will continue to heal and continue to have opportunity to share your journey.

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