We waited and waited. For hours. Hundreds of families were packed into the middle school cafeteria hoping to hear the name of their teenager called, anxious to see them and know they were okay. Besides those families, the first responders and school staff were there. And one other group was welcomed into North Marshall Middle School on Tuesday: the pastors.
A sleepy farming community had been jolted awake by sirens, frantic teenagers running out onto Highway 68, and, tragically, the sounds of gunfire in the hallways of the local high school from which they fled. I was in the area visiting with a local pastor when my phone buzzed. A state official quickly informed me of the unfolding tragedy and hung up to make his next call.
I shared the news with the pastor and heard the pain in his voice as he replied, “I have kids in that school.”
“Family?” I asked.
“No, my church kids.” As his voice began to shake, I knew that, to him, there was no distinction. Those kids are his family. “I’ll take you there,” I said.
We arrived at the school board office adjacent to the Marshall County High only to see another pastor had made it there first.
“What do you know?” I asked.
“I’m being told the kids still in the school will be bused to North Marshall Middle where they can be picked up by their parents.”
We were off again.
The staff at North Marshall Middle School was working diligently to see that only those who had kids coming to the school were allowed in but when one of the ladies saw a Bible in the hands of the pastor with me she said, “If you are ministers and can talk to these families, please go in right now.” So we did. Within a few minutes, other pastors arrived.
Like shepherds looking for missing sheep they walked through the gathering crowd hoping to spot the familiar faces of those who sat in their sanctuaries each Sunday. And when they did, there were hugs and tears. And there was gratitude.
Why were the pastors there at a time like that? Because they are supposed to be there. Because they are always there in those sacred moments when lives are forever changed.
They are there when new life is welcomed into the world. They are there when vows are exchanged and two lives become one. They are there when the eternal vow is made, a life committed to Christ through the waters of baptism. They are welcomed alongside the sickbed and the deathbed. Their voices speak words of hope and comfort even at the graveside. Why wouldn’t they be there when a frantic mother waits, hoping to receive word that her daughter wasn’t the girl that was killed at school that morning?
They were there. But not all of them. Some of them were already at the hospitals, having learned that one of “their” kids was hurt and on an ambulance.
One of them was driving to Nashville. He had heard the terrifying news that one of “his” kids was being flown to Vanderbilt. Dropping everything, he raced to the hospital. Upon seeing him enter the hospital counseling room, the grieving father could only say, “Pastor, he’s in a better place.” And while they wept and wept, their pastor was there. Why? Because he’s their pastor.
Paul Chitwood is executive director of the 750,000-member Kentucky Baptist Convention.