MARYVILLE, Ill. — March 8,
2009, started out as a fairly normal Sunday for Cindy Winters. Her husband,
Fred, got up early to preach the 8:15 a.m. service at First Baptist Church in
Maryville, Ill. One of their daughters rode with her father because she was
working in the nursery that morning. Cindy and their other daughter came later.
Then the nightmare began.
As she neared the church
where her husband had ministered for 22 years, the entrance was blocked by
emergency vehicles. A man directing traffic told her to pull off the road, and
her cell phone rang. It was a friend from another part of the state who told
her everything was going to be OK. Then another call, from a church member: “Cindy,
what’s going on?” She encountered a couple, and the woman remarked, “She doesn’t
know.” Finally, she asked a man she knew well what happened. He sighed deeply
and told her, “Fred’s been shot.”
Even after hearing how
serious her husband’s injuries were, she assumed he was going to be OK until
she was allowed to see him in a hospital emergency room. As she entered a nurse
told her they had just declared
“The only thing I really
know to compare that kind of panic and sense of helplessness to is it’s sort of
like being in a haunted house where you just are terrified and you can’t find
an exit sign or the nightmare you just can’t wake up from,” Winters said at a March
7 church service marking the one-year anniversary of the slaying. “I had never
been so afraid in my entire life.”
After being directed to a
room for families, Winters described being overwhelmed by feelings of
helplessness, panic and thinking that the one person she needed the most at
that time couldn’t be there.
‘Satan will not win’
After a while, she said,
there came a point when God spoke to her. “God said, ‘Cindy, what happened here
was sheer evil, and it was orchestrated by Satan.’ And I said out loud — and I
could have very well sounded pretty crazy to whoever was in that room at the
time — but I said out loud, ‘Then Satan will not win.’ “ She described the
moment as a building block to help put her life back together.
It was hard telling her
children their father wasn’t coming home, she said, and surreal to see people
she knew at a press conference and her own family pictured on CNN.
The first real comfort came
that night, when she and the girls crawled into bed and read two chapters from
90 Minutes in Heaven. The book had so moved her husband when he read it two
years earlier that he scheduled author Don Piper to come to First Baptist to
give his testimony about his own near-death experience and vision of heaven.
“Focusing on heaven doesn’t
take away our pain for the here and now, but it sure does put things in proper
perspective,” she said.
As a new widow and the
mother of two fatherless children, Winters said she realized several things
very quickly in the days that followed March 8.
“First of all, life can end
for any of us without warning,” she said. “None of us are guaranteed tomorrow,
or even the rest of today. No matter how long of a life we are blessed with,
each of us will one day die and have to face our eternal destination.”
“I also became vividly aware
that our circumstances in life can change drastically and without any kind of
warning,” she said. “Even though my circumstances changed, the God that I know
did not change. In my profound darkness I still felt his goodness and his love,
and I saw his faithfulness. I went to the pit. God was in that pit. He was
right there in that pit with me.”
“There is hope in chaos,”
she continued. “There is peace in the middle of the storm, and there is joy in
spite of our circumstances. I was always taught this, and I did believe it —
but now I know it.”
Ultimate trial of faith
Winters said she had had
trials before that tested her faith, but nothing compared to the murder of her
husband and what she has had to endure since then. “When my life-storm came,
and it was my tragedy that made the headlines, I had to determine one thing,”
she said. “Was knowing Jesus enough? It is. It is.”
“The strength that I draw on
doesn’t come from religion,” Winters said. “It doesn’t come from believing a
set of facts about God. It doesn’t come from doing good things. It comes simply
from having an intimate, trusting relationship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
That’s what faith is. It’s trust. It’s trusting him when life doesn’t seem
fair, when nothing is going right. It’s trusting him when your world is
seemingly falling apart.”
“A relationship with Jesus
is the one thing that makes sense when nothing else does,” she said.
Winters said one thing she
is grateful for is how tragedy puts other things in perspective. “Many of the
things that I thought were so important in life, well, they weren’t,” she said.
“They just simply weren’t.”
“March 8 was a horrible day
for me and for many others, for you, but it wasn’t for Fred,” she said. “What
happened to him was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened, but he is more alive
than any of us sitting here right now in this room.”
“And one day I am going to
meet him at the gate of heaven. And it’s my hope and it’s my prayer that I’ll
meet you there, too.”
The man who fired the shots
that killed Fred Winters, Terry Sedlacek, was charged with first-degree murder
mentally unfit to stand trial. He is being held in a state mental-health
facility. Police don’t know want prompted Sedlacek to target the pastor, but
March 8 was marked “death day” in a planning calendar found at his home in
nearby Troy, Ill.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated