VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. (WIAT) — The sanctuary of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was quiet as members gathered to worship Sunday morning.
As sunlight slowly filled the windows, some members took the time to hug one another, to offer encouragement 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 Thursday night. A suspect, Robert Findlay Smith, has since been arrested and charged with capital murder.
Rev. John Burruss was on a ministry trip in Athens, Greece when he received word of the shooting. Immediately boarding a plane back to Alabama, Burruss was in the sanctuary Sunday to both give a sermon as well as talk about the victims, whom he described as “the most faithful people I have ever met and pretty much lived our church.”
“They took bread and wine, they gave thanks that evening for love of each other and this community and they made that everyone was welcome at the table,” Burruss said of Rainey, Yeager and Pounds the night of the shooting. “They modeled unconditional love as they had faithfully done their entire lives, and it cost them their lives.”
Burruss was remined of how the victims did their best to model themselves on Jesus Christ’s teachings, bringing to mind 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 ultimately betray him and turn him over to the Romans to die.
Burruss said that like Jesus, Rainey, Yeager and Pounds would’ve welcome their own “Judas” again for a meal.
“I cannot speak for myself,” he said. “I don’t know what honestly I would have that kind of strength and compassion, but there is not a doubt in my mind that Bart, Sarah and Jane would invite their Judas again and again to sit down and share a meal because they knew God’s unconditional love. It was their guiding ethic and they fully embodied it and they knew it was the way to eternal life.”
In the days since the shooting, many across the community have paid their respects to St. Stephen’s. On Sunday, many flowers, signs with Bible verses and prayers could be seen lying across the church sign.
Throughout the service, Burruss often repeated John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:5.”
“So how do we heal? How do we respond,” Burruss asked. “We grieve, yes, and we trust in the unfailing faith of Jane and Bart and Sarah. We follow their example of love, of welcoming a stranger, of loving unconditionally, of seeking and serving Christ and our neighbor, of reaching out in love to everyone we meet, of making God’s unconditional love known to the world with our care and compassion for each other and those who are hurting, for making sure that everyone is welcome at the table.
“We find life in the 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 one last word to his congregation.
“We are in this together and we will walk together in love,” he said.
From there, church members left the way they came: quietly and hugging one another in love.