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Message In Stones And Faith Pastors In Jonesboro Wrestle With Sermons About Evil, Forgiveness In Wake Of Shootings

Pastors urged forgiveness Sunday and praised the hundreds of behind-the-scenes helpers who had given their time, talents and treasures since a deadly school shooting shattered the community’s morale.

At Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, little girls handed stones to arriving parishioners.

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” preached Deacon Victor J. Stepka. “We must use authority at least to try to understand and mend the person who has made a mistake.”

He explained that he had prepared his message before the shooting, but found it enhanced by Tuesday’s deaths of four students and a teacher, killed in a hail of bullets at their school. Police say two students, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden, are responsible.

“We refuse to be paralyzed by fear,” the Rev. Rodney Reeves said at Central Baptist Church. “Our God is so great and so good that he can take something so evil as the slaughter of innocence and turn it for good.”

At the First Baptist Church, the Rev. Bruce Tippit paused for a moment of public affirmation for the doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians in his church who helped treat the wounded outside Westside Middle School.

“On one hand, what they would’ve said is they were just doing their job, but they did it in a time when the need was so great,” Tippit said.

The Rev. Fred Haustein of the First United Methodist Church gave thanks “for those whose jobs were to bring responsibility and order to chaos, healing to injury, and peace to violence.”

Youngsters will return to Westside Middle School today for their first full week of classes since the killings. On Sunday, the school was open for counseling sessions.

On Tuesday, Tippit’s church members plan to distribute 250 stuffed animals, donated by a local Wal-Mart store, to students. Children will be encouraged to take the bunnies, bears and dolls to a community memorial service that evening at the Arkansas State University campus.

“The idea is to give them something to hold,” said Tippit.

Plans called for President Clinton to address the gathering through a video hookup from Africa. Attorney General Janet Reno and Gov. Mike Huckabee are to speak in person.

The Fullness of Joy Church collected a special offering Sunday for the school and the families of the victims. Pastor Adrian Rogers said the tragedy of the shootings had pulled together people of all different faiths.

“The city has come together for strength and to rally - that is the good thing,” Rogers said before his service.

Reminders of the shooting can be seen nearly everywhere in Jonesboro, from business signs proclaiming “Our prayers are with you, Westside” to the scores of buckets, coffee cans and jars labeled “Westside Crisis Fund” inside stores.

Donated money is to be used to pay for basic needs such as food, housing and clothing for victims and their families. Some funds also are going toward counseling services, said Jim Amstutz, a crisis fund committee member.

Through Saturday, nearly $60,000 had been donated to a fund being administered by the United Way.

At a Perkins restaurant, money in a half-gallon bucket was dedicated to a wounded girl, the daughter of an employee.

Hollie Gregory, 15, put a $5 bill in the bucket Saturday night.

“I would feel bad, even if I didn’t know them,” said Hollie.

Residents also responded to an emergency blood drive that began moments after the gunfire. In just four days, the American Red Cross in Jonesboro collected more than 555 units of blood, nearly five times the weekly average, said Bob Draper, nursing supervisor for the local Red Cross.

The Rev. Benny Baker assured Bono Church of Christ congregants that understanding will come someday, but not on this Earth, “for the Scriptures tell us our grief will be turned to joy, and that we will understand.”

Near the end of the 90-minute service, Baker took off his tie, which he had been wearing since Tuesday, and said he would never wear it again. It will be his reminder, he said, that life must go on.To emphasize that point, he noted that 20 babies were born Saturday in the same hospital that treated those wounded in the shooting.


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