First Baptist Church was on the front line, ministering to students, faculty and staff after a gunman opened fire at nearby Forest High School in Ocala, Fla.
One student was injured in the April 20 incident, which lasted only minutes.
But the church’s connection to the shooting goes beyond providing crisis ministry to students and their families — their pastor’s eldest daughter came face-to-face with the alleged gunman, Sky Bouche.
Bouche told a local reporter after his arrest that it was the look of fear in the young woman’s eyes that made him put his weapon down.
Darren Gaddis, senior pastor of First Baptist Ocala, was on a mission trip in Central Asia when he heard about his daughter’s experience and immediately began making arrangements to return home. He shared with the church Sunday morning that both of his children were close to disaster at Forest High School as his son was just one hallway away when the single gunshot rang out.
“This would be a very different day if my God had not intervened on behalf of my children,” an emotional Gaddis told the church.
Monty Grant, pastor for business administration at the church, helped coordinate efforts to provide comfort and care in the hours it took for students to be bussed from the school to the church and reunited with their families. As one of the largest venues in the area, Grant said the church often is used to coordinate a disaster or emergency response.
Because many First Baptist students attend Forest High, and considering the connection with the pastor’s family, Grant said everyone, whether they had students at the school or not, was “drawn in.” Grant was impressed with the willingness of church members to drop everything and start serving others, especially the students.
“When our students got off the bus, they immediately jumped into action, doing the same things the adults in the room were doing,” Grant added.
Gary Townsend, Florida Baptist Convention catalyst for the north region of the state, expressed gratitude for the hard work and caring support church members showed the faculty, staff and families of Forest High, noting that God’s hand of protection was apparent at the school and the church.
The willingness to serve was pervasive throughout the entire community as businesses began calling to see how they could help. Grant noted that several area businesses sent food and water to the church to help keep people comfortable.
Grant said that while everyone is understandably a bit on edge, there was a sense of normalcy among the Forest students he interacted with on Sunday.
“We prayed specifically that there wouldn’t be a spirit of fear and that they would be strong for their peers today,” he said. “It was happening as early as yesterday.”
Grant said while he hopes the church doesn’t get a lot of opportunities for the kind of ministry the community faced, “it was good to be in a place where we could be used by God that day.”
Writer Nicole Kalil is the Florida Baptist Convention’s strategic communication assistant.