The school shooting in Kentucky provided Baptist leader Paul Chitwood an extraordinary opportunity for ministry Jan. 23 among families of the two students killed and 18 others injured in a classmate’s melee.
Chitwood, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, was visiting with Marshall County pastors when he received word of the shootings at Marshall County High School, about 20 miles southeast of Paducah.
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Students and families gather for a vigil Jan. 23 after a student opened fire at Marshall County High School, killing two students in Benton, Ky.
The handgun-wielding alleged shooter was disrupted by a Marshall County sheriff’s deputy. The 15-year-old, who shot into a school common area before the start of classes, will be charged with murder and attempted murder, Kentucky State Police Lt. Michael Webb told the Baptist website Kentucky Today.
Killed in the shooting were Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, both 15-year-olds.
Chitwood urged prayer for the grieving families, the injured teens and their families and the students who witnessed the carnage.
“All the children have been traumatized,” Chitwood said. “They saw their friends shot. They had to run for their lives. We need to pray for healing and pray for the community and churches as they come together to minister to the families.”
Fourteen victims were treated for gunshot wounds and four others were injured during the incident, according to updated news accounts Jan. 24.
Six of the wounded students were taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, where Kentucky Baptist Convention President Charles Frazier spent the day ministering to families. Frazier is pastor of Zion’s Cause Baptist Church in Benton.
Chitwood and other Marshall County pastors spent several hours at a middle school where parents and students were reunited.
“About every kid had a cellphone and had been in touch with their parents,” Chitwood said. “But, even so, talk about tearful reunions, when these kids got out to their parents, it was a very emotional time.”
Area churches offered open doors, encouragement and support to the Benton community in the wake of a shooting. Hardin Baptist Church, located about 20 minutes from Benton, was among them, opening its doors from noon-2 p.m. for any student or family of a student who wanted to talk to or pray with a pastor or counselor. Around 20-30 students and adults were in and out the two-hour period.
Kory Cunningham, Hardin’s associate pastor, told the Kentucky convention’s Western Recorder news journal that youth and adults will meet together for tonight’s Wednesday evening service for “just a night of scripture and prayer. We are going to try again to bring each other together and remind us of the things that really matter in life.”
Joseph Brown, a 2015 graduate of Marshall County High School and member of Hardin Baptist, challenged those in his community via Facebook, “I beg any student that needs to talk to someone to please go to a counselor or talk to someone. It’s so important to talk about how you feel and what’s on your mind or something you saw, to someone that you can trust or get an answer from. The power of prayer is still strong.”
Brown, whose younger brother attends Marshall County High School, continued, “Don’t turn to hate and corruption. I pray that this situation will bring more to Christ and glorify Him. Let the ones we know, know that we love them, that the community loves them. In your spare time swing by the hospital and drop off flowers or just stop by and tell the student/parent you love them to show them we care.”
Kentucky State Police Commissioner Richard Sanders said the school had recently gone through active shooter training. “The students at the school did exactly as they were trained,” he said.
Without the Marshall County sheriff’s deputy apprehending the alleged shooter, Webb of the Kentucky State Police noted, “There is no way to know how much further it would have went.”
“Clearly, this kind of thing can happen anywhere, and I don’t know that there’s a way to stop it,” Chitwood said. “But it was inspiring to see the way the school officials and first responders handled this situation and the way parents reacted under extreme duress.”
Ricky Cunningham, Hardin Baptist’s senior pastor, noted, “Several of our church members work in the school system and they ministered amazingly in the crisis and chaos. Many of them were in the location of the shooter and shooting.” Cunningham, who was en route to the Amazon River to teach pastors, fielded calls from the airport in Nashville all morning related to the shooting.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, in a statement posted Jan. 23, noted, “This is a tremendous tragedy and speaks to the heartbreak present in our communities. It is unbelievable that this would happen in a small, close-knit community like Marshall County. As there is still much unknown, I encourage people to love on each other at this time. Do not speculate, but come alongside each other in support and allow the facts to come out.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kentucky Today, kentuckytoday.com, is a news resource of the Kentucky Baptist Convention; the Western Recorder, westernrecorder.org, is the convention’s news journal.)