A year ago this weekend, a man opened fire in a Maryville church in the middle of the sermon. Four shots were fired before church members tackled the gunman. One of the shots hit the pastor's bible and chest, which killed Fred Winters.
Now his widow, Cindy says she's trying to rebuild after the tragedy that shattered this community. She wants people to know that hope is still alive.
"Kind of the unthinkable happened, but even in spite of that, we've been able to see the hand of God and his faithfulness," Cindy Winters says.
Courageous words coming from the widow of Fred Winters, who was gunned down during Sunday service at Maryville Baptist Church one year ago. Cindy Winters is on a mission to heal and add hope to those who are hurting, just like her. She says it's sometimes hard to find peace.
"There's still sometimes a sense of peace when I look into the eyes of my kids and I see their suffering," Winters says. "It's hard to watch your kids suffer."
But she continues to pick up the pieces by finding comfort in sharing a common loss.
Fred lead the church for nearly 23 years and walked many milestones in the lives of his congregation.
"I mean he was there when so-and-so was born, and so-and-so was baptized, and when their mother died," Winters explains. "He was with them when they went through their surgery and things like that, so they lost a real connection there."
But Cindy is building new ones.
"They're hurting, and because I'm hurting too, they feel this instant connection," Winters says.
She'll share the message of how far she's come on Sunday. She plans to reflect on the church's growth and honor and remember a leader, husband, and man of God.
"I think by doing so," she says, "they'll see that there is a good and faithful God that can love us and give us hope in spite of our darkest tragedies."
The day after the shooting, Fred Winters's sermon notes were still on the podium. His fellow pastors say he only made it to the second point. The third was 'fulfill your calling and your work.' That's what the pastors try to do to tend to their growing congregation.
"We were just about to walk in when the gunshots were heard," Pastor Rich Cochran recalls.
"All of a sudden I heard pop, pop, pop, pop, and it sounded like popcorn," Pastor Mark Jones says.
Because who could believe that a man of God, in God's house, was gunned down inside the Maryville church. Pastor Fred Winters was shot dead while holding his Bible.
"Even now it's hard to understand because the loss is still so heavy," Cochran says. "We know that God is still good, and this doesn't change who God is because evil walked in here."
And it hasn't stopped new worshipers from joining 1,300 others who find solace in the same church where their leader died.
"We know that we don't have the answers, and so I think people in a time of crisis look to God and the church to provide that strength and support," Cochran says.
"One of Pastor Fred's desires was to see 100 people baptized in one calendar year," Jones says. "He never saw that in his life, but this past year we actually accomplished that goal."
Plus, attendance and donations are up 15 percent.
"Pastor Fred's passion -- he even stated in a message 'I would gladly give my life if one person could come to know the Lord,' knowing that eternity weighs in the balance," Jones says.
And for that, the pastors continue Fred's mission and hold out hope for others. Pastor Cochran says, "Hope is belief that something good can come out of something bad."
One of the four bullets fired at Fred Winters pierced his Bible, sending pieces of the pages flying like confetti. It's an image that still haunts many of the church members, but they say tell me that God has blessed this church and them.
While listening to Sunday service, a man walked in late -- right up to the altar.
"He got closer and the pastor said something to him to the effect of 'can I help you brother?'," Dale Hunt recalls.
He had a gun and started shooting Pastor Winters.
"My wife turned to me and said 'is this real,' and i said 'no, I think it's a fake gun'," Hunt says.
But from across the church, dental hygienist Stacy Morales was already on her feet, answering her pastor's cries for help.
"I immediately ran, came across this way," she says as she retraces the steps she took. "Shots were still being fired, and I came over here, and that's where Fred was laying."
That was just steps from Hunt.
"I still have a hard time walking past where he died," Hunt says. "We've never sat back in those same seats since."
Hunt says the nightmare the congregation witnessed that morning has left painful memories.
"You have trouble sleeping; you keep replaying the events over and over and over," Hunt says. "You close your eyes to go to sleep, and you see the things and you try to make them turn out different, and they just didn't."
So instead, they pray for healing -- a testimony to their unwavering faith.
"We raised it up to the Lord that we're going to get through this," Morales says.
"I can't even say I was angry at the person who did it, because I know that Satan did it," Hunt says.
"It has made us stronger to know that everyday is a day the Lord has given you," Morales says. "Be thankful for it and live life to the fullest because you never know."
The church wants this one-year anniversary to be a time to reflect and remember for the entire community -- not just church members. Cindy Winters will speak to the congregation and visitors during two services this Sunday, March 7 at 9 and 11 a.m.
The man accused of killing Winters will not stand trial, but he is in state custody. A judge ruled that 27-year-old Terry Sedlacek is mentally unfit. Psychiatrists say he's Schizophrenic. Sedlacek is also accused of stabbing two church members who restrained him. They survived.
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