This week marks the fifth anniversary of one of the worst weeks in the history of Fort Worth, Texas. What happened that week was a demonstration of evil and good, of a mad killer at work and a kind community in mourning. The week also revealed something about the man who now sits in the White House.
On September 15, 1999, a deranged man in a black trench coat entered a church in Ft. Worth, Texas, armed with bullets and a pipe bomb. He approached a group of worshippers in the foyer awaiting choir practice. He asked about a prayer meeting, and then began shooting. He headed to the sanctuary, which he sprayed with gunfire as he shouted obscenities. Seven were dead and many more injured. A teenage boy stopped the slaughter when he yelled out defiantly, “You can kill me but you can’t kill my faith!” Upon hearing those words, the assassin found a pew, sat down, and shot himself.
The first person murdered that day was Sydney Browning, a seminary graduate and local educator who was selected Teacher of the Year at her high school two years in a row. She was hit in the head and chest at point-blank range and died instantly. Her father, Don, has obviously never forgotten that day, nor the compassion from the community he saw in the days that followed. “I never saw anything grip the city like that,” he says today.
The morning after the massacre an impromptu prayer session was held at the pastor’s house. The church was now a crime scene, filled with police, coroners, chalked lines, bullet-ridden oak walls, and blood-soaked carpets. A surprise attendee at that prayer session was Texas Governor George W. Bush, who made the 186-mile trip from Austin. He arrived unannounced and left almost as quietly. A church of God had been converted into a Texas killing field, and the governor came to offer his personal prayers.
So overwhelming was the outpouring of grief that the shocked community was forced to hold the memorial service at the football stadium at Texas Christian University. Sydney Browning’s father was asked to speak at the service. When he arrived backstage before the event, he unexpectedly encountered the Texas governor. The two men shook hands. “Are you coming into this a believer?” Bush asked. Browning nodded. “God bless you,” said Bush. “I’m praying for you.” The service organizers then asked their unanticipated guest if he would like to sit at the platform with the other VIPs. The governor replied, “No, this isn’t about me,” and sat in the stands among the thousands.
Browning spoke last. The choir director had long ago connected with his little girl through music, and he thought it fitting to finish his remarks by extemporaneously singing the first song his daughter had sung in public. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine,” he began, asking the audience to join him. Browning paused to note that the last verse of the song reads: “Let it shine ‘til Jesus comes.” He told the crowd that his daughter no longer needs to sing that last line, but the rest of them do. The tribute closed with that. When the service ended, the governor approached Browning once more. “That was great,” said Bush, clasping Browning’s hand. “I couldn’t have done it.”
George W. Bush then exited as he came: low-key, with no cameras. He had said nothing profound or poetic. One can understand why his appearance went unreported. His response was memorable only for its lack of showiness. In both visits after the shooting, Bush avoided the press, told no one he was coming, stayed, prayed, paid his respects, talked briefly to the families, and then silently drove away.
My home sits 1,300 miles from Ft.Worth. I learned of this story while researching George W. Bush’s faith. Someone recommended I look into this terrible incident. That someone suggested I telephone his friend, Don Browning. One day in April 2004 I did just that, and spent an hour on the telephone with Mr. Browning, who recounted to me (a stranger) the awful details of the Texas church shooting that took the life of his beloved daughter, Sydney. I’m sure my call ruined his day. Still, through that tragedy, Don Browning saw a side of the current president that the rest of us have not, and felt that side needed to be told.
It’s easy to demonize our politicians, whether they are George W. Bush or John F. Kerry. It’s also easy to dehumanize them, to forget they are human beings. And that was George W. Bush, now the world’s most powerful man, five years ago this week—not a politician but just a person grieving with the rest of Texas.