VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (WIAT) — The sanctuary at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was quiet as members gathered to worship Sunday morning.
As sunlight slowly filled the windows, some members took time to hug each other, cheering each other on in the face of tragedy. The service came days after three of its members – Bart Rainey, Sarah Yeager and Jane Pounds – were shot and killed during a potluck dinner at the church on Thursday night. A suspect, Robert Findlay Smith, has since been arrested and charged with capital murder.
The Reverend John Burruss was on a ministerial trip to Athens, Greece when he learned of the shooting. Immediately boarding a plane back to Alabama, Burruss was at the sanctuary on Sunday to give a sermon and talk about the victims, whom he described as “the most faithful people I have ever met who pretty much lived in our church.”
“They had bread and wine, they gave thanks that night for the love of each other and this community and they made sure everyone was welcome at the table,” Burruss said. about Rainey, Yeager and Pounds on the night of filming. “They modeled unconditional love as they had faithfully done all their lives, and it cost them their lives.”
Burruss recalled how the victims did their best to model themselves on the teachings of Jesus Christ, recalling the story of how one of the people who broke bread with Jesus during his last supper was Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples who would eventually betray him and deliver him to the Romans to die.
Burruss said that like Jesus, Rainey, Yeager and Pounds would once again have hosted their very own “Judas” for a meal.
“I can’t speak for myself,” he said. “I don’t know what I would honestly have that kind of strength and compassion, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Bart, Sarah and Jane would invite their Judas over and over again to sit down and share a meal because that they knew God’s unconditional love was their guiding ethic and they fully embodied it and they knew it was the path to eternal life.
In the days following the shooting, many residents of the community paid their respects to St. Stephen’s. On Sunday, many flowers, signs with Bible verses and prayers were visible on the church sign.
Throughout the service, Burruss often repeated John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5.”
“So how do we heal? How do we respond,” Burruss asked. “We mourn, yes, and we trust in the unwavering faith of Jane, Bart and Sarah. We follow their example of love, of welcoming a stranger, of unconditional love, of seeking and serving Christ and our neighbour, of reaching out in love to all we meet, of making known the unconditional love of God to the world with our care and compassion for each other and those who suffer, to ensure that everyone is welcome at the table.
“We find life in healing through how we care for each other in the world. How do we respond? We reach out in love to a hurting world.
Taking a moment before the end of the service, Burruss offered a final word to his congregation.
“We are in this together and we will walk together in love,” he said.
From there, the church members departed as they had come: quietly and lovingly embracing.