Exorcising demons

A Wedgwood member recounts last year's tragedy to help others--and himself--move on

In the dark, troubling aftermath of last September's shooting rampage at Wedgwood Baptist Church, predictable rumors began circulating even as funerals were being planned and reparation to the damaged sanctuary was under way. A half-dozen writers, locally and from afar, were talking of tracing the tragedy, fashioned by mentally deranged gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook, in book form.

Such is the way in today's world of high-profile tragedies. A nobody named Angel Maturino Resendiz hops freights, stopping in shadowy places to commit unspeakable crimes, and soon his menacing face is on the cover of a quickly produced paperback. Texas-born serial killer Kenneth McDuff rapes and murders before finally caught, convicted, and put to death. Part of his brutal legacy: not one, but two book-length works on his evil deeds. Even before the ashes of David Koresh's Mount Carmel cooled, a fast-study paperback was on its way to the newsstand racks, there to beat out a subsequent parade of other books published on the Waco nightmare.

At Wedgwood, the violated and mourning members wanted no part of such frenzied literary competition. So they turned to one of their own.

Dr. Dan R. Crawford's just-published Night of Tragedy, Dawning of Light had already sold in the neighborhood of 7,000 copies before last week's arrival in mainstream bookstores. Remarkably, the $14.99 trade paperback--part true crime, part spiritual examination--is being warmly embraced by the church's membership.

Crawford--professor of evangelism and spiritual formation at the Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary for 15 years, author of nine earlier books for the religious market, and a member of the Wedgwood congregation--admits that he approached the idea with some reservation. "I had finished writing a book a few months earlier," says Crawford, 58, "and was feeling a bit guilty that I hadn't begun something else. I was praying for a subject when the idea for a book on the events at Wedgwood--mixing a story of the tragedy and the struggles to overcome it--came to mind." The author ultimately went to church pastor Dr. Al Meredith to outline his idea.

"From what I'd been hearing," the Wedgwood pastor says, "I felt sure there would be a book done. So, when Dan came to me, I was thrilled because I knew he could be trusted not only to do an accurate account but to tell the story from our perspective. I told him that not only was the church comfortable with him writing the book but would endorse his effort."

Thus Crawford went in search of a publisher, contacting two dozen editors. Four showed serious interest in the type book he planned. "Of the ones who were interested, a small company called Shaw Publications in Colorado Springs seemed not only the most enthusiastic but had the best understanding of what I had in mind to do," he says. It would be the first in a series of serendipitous events leading the way to the finished product.

"While I liked Shaw, I must admit I was concerned that distributing the book, getting it into the marketplace on a scale every writer hopes for, might be a problem," the author says. Then, just a week after signing the contract, Crawford learned that the Colorado company had been purchased by New York publishing giant Random House. Suddenly, widespread distribution was ensured.

Additionally, there was the problem of finding time to do the necessary research. A world traveler and lecturer, Crawford had an already-scheduled 10-day mission trip to Turkey postponed at the last minute, suddenly providing him the opportunity to immediately begin work on the project.

It also bears mentioning that the soft-spoken seminary professor has, with Night of Tragedy, Dawning of Light, made a grand detour from the avenues traveled by most authors drawn to such a subject.

One of his first orders of business was to set up an editorial board, consisting of the families of the seven people killed during Ashbrook's insane rampage (Dallas Observer, "In the line of fire," Oct. 7, 1999). "My agreement with them was that they could read the manuscript before it was submitted to the publisher, and if there was any part of it they did not approve of, it would come out. I knew I was writing an emotional and important part of their history, and it had to be something they would be comfortable with," he says.

Next, he insisted to his publisher that his contract read that the modest advance it had agreed to pay for the book would be sent directly to the Wedgwood Baptist Church Victims' Fund. Then, all royalties earned from sales of the book would be paid to the Southern Baptist Mission Board for use by seminary students who attend Wedgwood Baptist.

"I didn't want to have to one day stand before God and answer a question about how much money I made off my fellow church members," Crawford says. "For lack of a better description," he adds, "this was a labor of love."

And one for which any claim of exploitation would be unjust.

For Crawford, who was en route to Wedgwood to meet his wife, daughter, and granddaughter on that infamous Wednesday night--they fled safely to a nearby house in the neighborhood when the shooting began--doing the book was "a remarkable learning experience." With titles like DecipleShape: Twelve Weeks to Spiritual Fitnessto his credit, writing about the horror that visited Wedgwood was a dramatic departure; one, he admits, that prompted him to join a number of other church members in counseling before his book was done. "Interviewing family members of those who lost loved ones that night," he says, "was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Throughout the 10 weeks that I worked on the first draft, I was on an emotional roller coaster. I found myself getting very depressed. So, yes, I went in search of some help. I needed someone to give me a pat on the back and tell me to keep on with it."

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