Faith and Resilience After Surviving a Church Shooting

An interview with Dr. Aaron New, a psychology professor who is also a survivor.

Posted May 29, 2019

A recent wave of shootings targeting places of worship—including churches, synagogues, and mosques—has surfaced important conversations about the unique psychological and spiritual needs that arise for survivors and communities after these events.

Aaron New, used with permission
Source: Aaron New, used with permission

Dr. Aaron New is Professor of Psychology and Counseling and Chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Central Baptist College in Conway, Arkansas. He is also a survivor of a church shooting that took place in 1999. From his experience as both a psychology professor and a survivor, he is able to offer a unique perspective on what faith and resilience look like in the wake of a church shooting.

JA: Tell me about your personal experience connected to the Wedgwood Baptist church shooting in 1999.

AN: One Wednesday evening in September 1999, a gunman entered our church and, for reasons still unknown to us today, began shooting people as he walked from the foyer into the sanctuary, where youth from all around the city had gathered for a rally and concert. There he fired over 100 rounds and threw a homemade pipe bomb into the crowd, eventually killing seven people and seriously wounding seven others before taking his own life. My wife was on her way to that foyer and was within just a minute or two from walking into the building when the shooting occurred. Among the victims was a friend of ours. The whole thing was an extraordinarily confusing and painful experience for all of us.

JA: What did resilience look like in your community in the days, months, and years after the shooting?

AN: I tend to think of my own experience in two “stages,” for lack of a better term. Initially, my resiliency was characterized by just surviving. At the beginning, most of us were working hard just to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the midst of all the chaos, pain, and grief. With time, my resiliency became characterized with growth as I tried to incorporate this experience into my worldview and letting it change the way I see myself, God, my work, and my relationships with others.

JA: What are the unique psychological and spiritual needs that arise in the wake of a church shooting?

AN: Among the other things that it does, violence tends to separate people. It separates them from others and it separates them from their sense of safety in the world. This can make a church shooting especially tragic. Churches are important places for people to experience connection and community with others. And churches are seen as safe places for people as they worship together. A church shooting can cause people to associate their church with being disconnected and unsafe, creating a dissonance that is deeply unsettling.

JA: Do you have any coping tips you might recommend to survivors and others impacted by a church shooting?

AN: I would recommend two actions for both survivors and others in the community: (1) be patient, and (2) be present. Survivors need to be patient with themselves, not rushing to answers and not speeding through the grieving process. They also need to be present with each other. I found this to be the single most helpful coping strategy in my own life—just being with others as we tried to figure out the whole surviving-and-growing thing together. And the patient and persistent presence of the community can be invaluable to survivors. I remember how significant it was to my church when others in the community made themselves present—by offering to work in the child care area our first Sunday back, by praying for us outside the church during that same service, by bringing tissues for every pew, by bringing meals, and by sending thousands of cards and emails of love and encouragement. 

JA: What do people need to know about caring for survivors in the wake of a church shooting?

AN: It is true that all people connected to the church need caring for. But I have become particularly sensitive to the needs of the church leaders in the wake of a church shooting. They are just as hurt, confused, and wounded as others, and yet they are in a position of needing and wanting to care for others in the church. Church leaders tend to put their own grief work on hold and often don’t receive the same level of care that others do.

JA: What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

AN: The evening of the shooting, a news reporter asked my pastor, “What would you say to people who ask, ‘Where was God while all this happened?’” It is an important question for people of faith. For sure, some will struggle with feeling abandoned by God if violence occurs in their place of worship. But many others will also experience unique moments of God’s presence and provision during their grief. Violence in a church has the potential for both great pain and struggle as well as great comfort and growth.  

JA: Is there anything else you'd like to share?

AN: I’m always thankful for the opportunity to talk about my experience at Wedgwood. In fact, I think this is probably true for many people of faith. Most of us appreciate sharing how our faith sustained us during a crisis and how our faith has been shaped by our experiences.