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Shaken community gathers to pray for Freeman families

Hundreds gathered in Fairfield and Spokane on Wednesday night to pray for the students injured and killed in a shooting at Freeman High School.

The message to the victims and their familes was clear: “You’re not alone.”

Three girls, Emma Nees, Jordyn Goldsmith and Gracie Jensen, recovering from bullet wounds when a student opened fire in the hallway of Freeman High School just hours before, weren’t alone. And Sam Strahan, the young man who died when he was shot in the head, wasn’t alone.

Even the shooting suspect, Caleb Sharpe, wasn’t alone.

“What started out to be a normal Wednesday morning kind of got blown out of the water,” said Paul Anderson, the pastor of Fairfield Community Church. “We’re just not sure what to even say. It’s a catastrophe. But I’m here to say God is with us.”

The pastor in Fairfield, a small community south of Freeman, faced rows of community members and dozens of Central Valley School District students, who rode in on full school buses from University and Central Valley high schools.

He led the crowd in prayer. And then in songs. And then in more prayer. Even though they’d never attended church together, everyone fit in. In small towns like that, everyone knows everyone, Anderson said.

Each word he spoke seemed to strike a different chord, people’s faces growing wet with tears. Some looked down, praying silently to themselves. Others stared at the church walls, their eyes solemn with mourning.

“For parents, for students, for friends and families, surround them with your comfort and your peace,” the pastor said while praying. “Give them the knowledge that they can lean hard into you for the weeks and days to come.”

KayDee Gilkey, Fairfield’s mayor, said it was cathartic for people to gather, to cry into one another’s shoulders and make sense of the seemingly insensible.

“We all know someone who was impacted,” she said. “It’s a small community. We’re all attached. We’re gonna stand behind them, and support them how we can. That’s what we do.”

Students Hannah Craig, Ethan Stewart and Jenny Wagstaff all drove down from Spokane Valley to show support for Fairfield, which has a sizable number of Freeman students who live there. Craig said that even though she goes to school in the valley, most students know someone at Freeman.

“We understand it’s a smaller community and we just want to make sure Central Valley was here,” she said.

“We wanted to let everyone know we’re grieving together,” Stewart, a senior, added.

At the end of the vigil, Anderson introduced a crowd favorite: Kumbaya. He asked everyone to link hands, and those whose hands were free, to hold up their phones and turn shine them bright like a flashlight.

Many Freeman students and their families, and other residents of the small communities south of Spokane, attend the Valley Real Life church in Greenacres, which also held a prayer vigil Wednesday evening. The Rev. Dan Shields urged the hundreds of attendees to “be there for one another” throughout the mourning process.

Among the church’s congregants are shooting victims Gracie Jensen and Jordyn Goldsmith. Shields said he had received updates from their families and that their stable conditions were “a miracle.” Shields said one bullet nearly pierced one of Jensen’s lungs.

“A millimeter this way, a millimeter that way,” and she might not have survived, Shields said.

“Let’s continue to pray, let’s continue to mourn, and let’s continue to love,” he said. “People immediately jump to the ‘Why did this happen? How did this happen? Who allowed this to happen?’ It’s not the time to try to find answers. It’s a time to share love.”

The Rev. Nic Mather told the two dozen people gathered for a prayer service at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist that it’s hard to come to grips about why this shooting happened or why a child died. He urged everyone to pray not only for the teenagers wounded and killed, but the teenager who pulled the trigger.

“We come together tonight because it’s the only thing we can do,” he said. “We gather because we want to know the community is still here.”

After the short service ended, nearly everyone stayed. They sat quietly, sitting or kneeling with their heads bowed. Some people hugged each other, their wordless exchanges communicating sorrow and grief. Others approached the altar and lit candles. After about 15 minutes of quiet and stillness, everyone slowly began to trickle out the door.

Jerry King, who taught at Freeman Middle School for 23 years before retiring a few years ago, dug up an old “I (heart) Freeman” button that he pinned to his shirt for the service. He was the longtime high school football coach and still helps with the team.

“I knew them all,” he said as he stared off into the night. “It’s just so shocking that it would happen in cozy little Freeman. If it can happen in Freeman it can happen anywhere.”

King said he’s baffled by how someone who has been a part of such a tight knit group could bring guns to school and start shooting. “It’s not some stranger, a new kid on the block,” he said.

Hundreds of students, parents and community members gathered in the main atrium of River Park Square. The Rev. John Repsold addressed the crowd and lead them in prayer.

“There is still good in this world,” he said. “There is still a future. The good that can come out of the evil of today is that people can come together and say, ‘Life can be different.’ “

He led prayers for Strahan, the three girls who were injured and the alleged shooter, Caleb Sharpe and his family.

“I would encourage you to pray for this entire family,” he said of the Sharpes. “All of whom need the grace of our entire community.”

Reported and written by Eli Francovich, Nina Culver, Chad Sokol and Jonathan Glover.