[Episcopal News Service] Three people were killed in a shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, during a potluck supper on June 16. A 70-year-old man is in custody pending charges, according to police.
“At some point he produced a handgun and began shooting, striking three victims,” Vestavia Hills Police Captain Shane Ware said during a June 17 press conference, describing the suspect only as an “occasional attendee” of the church.
Walter Rainey, 84, of Irondale, died at the scene. Sarah Yeager, 75, of Pelham, later died at the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham. The third victim, 84-year-old Jane Pounds, died at the same hospital, police said on Friday afternoon.
Another potluck attendee subdued the shooter, who acted alone, and held him down until police arrived, Ware said.
“Our hearts are broken from the horrible tragedy this evening at Saint Stephen’s,” the Rev. John Burruss, St. Stephen’s rector, wrote on June 16. “More than anything, I ask your prayers for our community, especially those who are injured and the families of the deceased.
“These are the pillars of our community, and I cannot begin to fathom how painful this is for our entire church, and the larger community. There is much that will be shared in the coming days and weeks as we look to gather and process this tragic event.”
Police were dispatched around 6:22 p.m. in response to reports of an active shooter at the church building, according to an ABC News report. The monthly “Boomers” potluck event began at 5 p.m., according to the church’s event calendar. It is unclear how many people were in attendance, according to Debbie Donaldson, the diocese’s missioner for communication.
The Rev. Doug Carpenter, who founded the parish in 1973, told AL.com that a man calling himself “Mr. Smith” was sitting alone at the potluck and a parishioner invited him to sit at a table. The man refused and later pulled out a handgun and shot three people, Carpenter said, adding that no one at the dinner knew him. “We’re trying to figure out who he is,” Carpenter told AL.com.
Burruss, who was leading a pilgrimage in Greece at the time, posted a Facebook video shortly after the shooting, offering prayers and thanking those who reached out in support.
A livestreamed prayer service for the victims was held at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on Friday morning.
“We come together today because we need to share our deepest fears, our hurt, our broken hearts and our grief, and we need to lament and mourn together,” Alabama Bishop Glenda Curry said during her sermon. “We need to be here because this is how God’s people respond when the world falls apart. … Right now Jesus is weeping with us and hurting with us and praying for us.”
Several hours after the shooting, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry led a prayer service for the victims and survivors of the attack on Facebook Live.
“Surround us with your love, even in difficult times, as we face again the tragedy of gun violence,” Curry said, using a prayer adapted from a litany from Bishops United Against Gun Violence. “Merciful God, please bind up the wounds of all who suffer from gun violence.”
In a June 17 statement, the presiding bishop encouraged Episcopalians across the church to offer special prayers on Sunday “for those affected by the shooting at St. Stephen’s—and for all victims of gun violence.”
“Even as I write, I am on the way to the commemoration of the nine who were martyred in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The plague of gun violence in the United States affects us all, and now it has affected a congregation in The Episcopal Church,” he said.
The Rev. Rebecca Bridges, associate rector for formation and outreach at St. Stephen’s, was in London at the time of the shooting and posted a reflection on the parish website mourning the loss of the “very beloved members of our Saint Stephen’s community” and said she and the community would be “forever changed.”
“This is a space that we associate with love and joy and community — wedding receptions, Vacation Bible School, bingo and movie nights, guest lectures, Sunday Forums, Wednesday night dinners, the ECW Tea,” Bridges wrote. “Now this same space will also be linked in our minds with a time of fear and chaos and sorrow.”
The shooting came one day before the seventh anniversary of the deadly massacre at Mother Emanuel AME, where a gunman shot and killed nine Black people during a Bible study at the church. Curry is scheduled to participate in a 7 p.m. Bible study honoring the dead.
The Episcopal Church has advocated at least since the 1970s for legislation seeking to reduce the risk of gun violence in the United States, though efforts to pass new gun restrictions and safety measures routinely face insurmountable barriers in Congress, where pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association have been successful in blocking them.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to a police report that gave the suspect’s age as 71. Police later reported his age as 70.
– Lynette Wilson is the managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.