The Rev. Keith Schadel was already planning on a sermon about fear the morning of Feb. 28 at the Hesston United Methodist Church in Kansas.
The subject, based on the first six verses of Psalm 139, didn’t change, but following the workplace shooting at the Excel plant in Hesston on Feb. 25, which left four dead (including the gunman) and 14 injured, Schadel said his sermon illustrations did.
Specifically, Schadel said, he spoke of the apprehension he had when discussing an ecumenical church service that was to take place that night and the discussions that preceded it with pastors of other faiths that Friday.
He was asked to give one of the sermons for the service with pastors in Harvey County.
“I’m not unwilling, but I feel underqualified,” Schadel said he told his fellow pastors. “The whole group broke out laughing and said, ‘Who is qualified in a case like this?’”
Schadel did end up as one of the speakers at the Service of Sorrow and Hope, which drew hundreds to the Hesston High School gymnasium and was covered live by two Wichita TV stations. Darci Utt, the Hesston UMC youth and discipleship minister, was one of those who read scripture.
While Schadel’s original approach to fear in his Sunday morning sermon was more about the fear of going forth in discipleship, he said it became more about a fear of death.
“What I focused on was more my remark about feeling underqualified,” said Schadel, an elder in his third year at Hesston UMC. “We’re all underqualified. Life and death is bigger than any of us. But we know One who’s bigger than life or death. That was the emphasis.”
Schadel spoke about the heroism and kindness that he saw after the shootings, including an EMS team leader who looked strong and in control after the incident, counseling other workers and giving them hugs as they did their job.
“He was magnificent. He was perfect. I wished I had words something like his,” Schadel said. Following the EMS leader into another room, “I saw the look of fear on his face, and he looked up at me and asked, ‘Did I do OK?’”
On Saturday morning, when nearly 400 law enforcement personnel were in Hesston, Schadel witnessed a member of his congregation bring a cup of coffee to an FBI agent who was standing watch. The FBI agent, stereotypically stoic, broke into tears at the act of kindness, Schadel said.
The Hesston church, one of nine in the town and one of five non-Mennonite congregations, is the closest geographically to the Excel plant, Schadel said. He and the Rev. Hollie Tapley, Great Plains Conference Disaster Response coordinator, arrived at the scene shortly after the incident.
“Through Hollie, we established some relationships with first responders,” Schadel said. “There’s been some more of that since.”
Although none of his congregation where among those killed or injured, Schadel said the incident has prompted them to pause for reflection.
“We’re having to think about, talk about the way we live out our faithfulness in terms of our understanding of God and our sense of the sacredness of life and all of those questions,” he said.
On the practical side, Schadel said the church is progressing with its plans to put together a violence task force at the Hesston church.
“We’d been kind of dragging our feet,” Schadel said. “But I get the feeling the pace is about to pick up.”
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