[Episcopal News Service — Vestavia Hills, Alabama] June 16 marked one year since three Episcopalians were killed in a shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham.
The three victims — Jane Pounds, 84, Bart Rainey, 84, and Sharon Yeager, 75, longtime parishioners of St. Stephen’s — were participating in a potluck inside the church’s parish hall when an occasional churchgoer opened fire. Two died at the scene and one died later in the hospital. In May, the shooter pleaded guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“By now, most of the story has been told and forgotten by others in the world who have moved on with their lives, and that is okay with me,” Jim Musgrove, a parishioner of St. Stephens, wrote in an essay. “For those of us at Saint Stephens, however, our memories and pain will never end.”
Musgrove was awarded the Carnegie Medal by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, North America’s highest honor for civilian heroism, for subduing the shooter until police arrived. His essay was published in “The Light Shines in the Darkness: Choosing Hope after a Mass Shooting,” a compilation of essays written by 42 parishioners of St. Stephen’s reflecting on the tragedy and the lifelong healing process.
To honor Pounds, Rainey and Yeager, St. Stephen’s observed the one-year anniversary of the shooting with a special evening worship service attended by hundreds of people, followed by a reception. Earlier in the day, a labyrinth memorial garden, which includes a plaque and three sheet-water fountains symbolizing Pounds, Rainey and Yeager, was unveiled to the public. The current plaque is temporary and will be replaced by a permanent one later.
Shooting survivors and the victims’ families arrived at St. Stephen’s earlier in the day for private reflection and prayer.
“How can we not give thanks to three of the most faithful people that this community has ever met? They lived in a life of the ultimate witness to God’s love, and there’s a sense of incredible gratitude,” the Rev. John Burruss, rector of St. Stephen’s, told Episcopal News Service.
Counselors were available on site for anyone in need throughout the course of the day.
In the weeks after the shooting, people wrote prayers and reflections on brightly colored ribbons and tied them on wire in front of the altar. Liz Edge, a St. Stephen’s parishioner and a local artist, used the ribbons to create a special altar frontal and stoles for clergy that were used during the evening service.
The labyrinth is available for public use as a form of prayer and meditation.
“I think grace that comes with brokenness being made a connection with the community, that’s what the labyrinth will be,” Alabama Bishop Glenda Curry said in a news conference. “It will be a place where everybody can come to collect.”
Curry served as officiant while Burruss preached the evening worship service. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was originally scheduled to preach the service and bless the labyrinth memorial garden, but he’s currently not clear for travel due to recent health issues. However, he told Bishop Glenda Curry that he plans to visit St. Stephen’s sometime before his tenure concludes in 2024.
Burruss said the tragedy and subsequent year of healing among the St. Stephen’s community has, in a way, been clarifying for his faith.
“As Christians, we are not promised safety; we’re not promised anything other than eternal life,” Burruss said. “What we have found here is a commitment not only to care for each other, but to continue to be a place of inclusivity and to welcome the stranger. It’s challenging and this has been really hard … but St. Stephen’s is testament that God’s love is breaking through all things. And we don’t have control over what happens, but we have control on how we respond. So is our baptismal covenant.”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.