church shootings

'The hardest story I've ever written': Journalist masterfully tells story of church gunman's wife

'The hardest story I've ever written': Journalist masterfully tells story of church gunman's wife

Want to read the best, most insightful coverage of the aftermath of last November's massacre at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas? 

Then you absolutely must follow the byline of San Antonio Express-News journalist Silvia Foster-Frau, who repeatedly has produced extraordinary journalism on this sad subject.

Just three past examples of her must-read reporting on Sutherland Springs:

• Her hopeful, sensitive, nuanced portrait of victims a month after the tragedy.

• Her poignant account of survivors attending National Day of Prayer events in Washington, D.C., in May.

• Her detail-laden profile, published in June, of the “good guy with a gun” who confronted the gunman outside the church. 

And now comes another masterpiece from Foster-Frau, this one from the front page of Sunday's Express-News and featuring her exclusive interviews with the troubled wife of the dead gunman.

How incredible was this latest story? Consider that at least two other major Texas papers — the Houston Chronicle (a sister publication of the Express-News) and the Dallas Morning News — both reprinted it on their front pages today.

The chilling opening scene recounts what happened at the home of Devin and Danielle Kelley on the morning of Nov. 5:

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If, somehow, a story about deadly church shootings can be heartwarming, this is the one

If, somehow, a story about deadly church shootings can be heartwarming, this is the one

I stopped by the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield, Texas, in 2004.

At the time, I covered religion and politics for The Associated Press in Dallas. Ahead of Texas' presidential primary that year, I noticed that Morris County — where Daingerfield is located — was one of the few places in George W. Bush's home state where the vote had been close in the 2000 general election.

So I headed to the steel-mill town, 140 miles east of Dallas, to talk to voters.

I found one of those voters at the Baptist church:

For Martha Martin, 62, secretary-treasurer at the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield, Bush’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage makes him the choice.
“I think he will go down in history as one of our great presidents,” Martin said.
She said she prays Bush will win re-election, “because I think he’s a moral, upstanding person, and I think he seeks the Lord in what he does.”

What I didn't realize — because I was so young when it happened — was that the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield had been the site of a mass shooting that made national headlines in 1980.

Why do I bring this up now — 37 years later?

Because the New York Times has an excellent story on the somber common experience that now ties together the Daingerfield congregation and the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people died Nov. 5.

The Times' powerful lede:

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Wedgwood Baptist flashback: A clock started ticking on a new era of attacks on religious believers

Wedgwood Baptist flashback: A clock started ticking on a new era of attacks on religious believers

Day after day, I get waves of promotional emails from groups that I have covered during my 30 years as a religion-beat columnist.

Some of them I merely glance at. Others I fill away for future use.

One email this morning stood out, for obvious reasons. It was from the team of church-security advisors with an organization that calls itself the Sheepdog Seminars (as in workers who fight the wolves that prey on "sheep" in a church flock). One member of the team, Jimmy Meeks, is a Hurst, Texas, police officer who is also a Southern Baptist preacher. I've been corresponding with him for years (click here for a column from five years ago).

The email was from Sutherland Springs, Texas. Here's what it said:

This newsletter is short. Quite frankly, I don't know what to tell you this time. I do know this: we have now set a new "record" for the number of people killed on church and faith-based property this year: 92 so far.

The old "record" was 77 lives in 2015. This violence is not going to stop. You had better prepare your church. 

As our own Bobby Ross, Jr., noted at midweek, journalists have been all over the church-security angle of this latest tragedy -- with good cause. The fact that there are multiple companies and networks dedicated to this kind of work is evidence of the validity of this story.

The common theme is not that church pews need to be packed with people who have concealed weapons. The bottom line is that religious institutions need some kind of plan for security and, tragically, this now means preparing to stop or slow down a gunman, with worshipers briefed on evacuation plans, etc.

This is not a new story, of course. Thus, I appreciated that The Fort Worth Star-Tribune team dug into its own local angle on this latest massacre in a church. I am talking about the attack nearly two decades ago at that city's Wedgwood Baptist Church, which was the tragedy that -- for security experts -- started the clock ticking on a bloody new era.

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Breaking news, meet expert religion reporting: Inside the Tennessee church shooting coverage

Breaking news, meet expert religion reporting: Inside the Tennessee church shooting coverage

Holly Meyer, religion writer for The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, immediately headed to the office when she heard about Sunday's mass shooting at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ.

The paper already had dispatched a reporter to the scene, as other staff members pieced together details of the shooting that claimed the life of church member Melanie Crow and wounded seven others.

"For me, a lot of my background is in breaking news," Meyer told me. "I always joke that religion and breaking news don’t necessarily go together. But you’d be amazed how often those breaking news skills really come in handy. They certainly do in situations such as this."

They do indeed — as do Meyer's expert religion reporting skills — which she has demonstrated in expert fashion this week.

Early in its reporting, The Tennessean team learned that minister Joey Spann was one of the shooting victims.

"I really wanted to find out more about the minister," Meyer said.

And she did, with the help of sports department colleagues who were familiar with the vocational minister's work as a Christian school coach. And with archive background that revealed this was not Spann's first near-death experience.

The result: an excellent first-day profile of Spann that appeared in Monday's newspaper:

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