Exorcising demons

Church member Dr. Dan R. Crawford: "For lack of a better description, this was a labor of love."

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 Fitness to 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."

It is apparent that fellow Wedgwood members are glad he did. On a recent Memorial Day weekend Sunday, pre-publication copies of the book were made available to church members. All but a few of the 5,000 copies that had been shipped to Wedgwood were sold. "People were buying copies for themselves, for friends, for relatives. One man bought a hundred," Crawford says. "Hearing people refer to it as 'our book' as they walked out of the church that day was the big payoff for me. I had agonized so over how it might be accepted. And then, fortunately, I saw that people were embracing it, viewing it as a part of the closure they'd been looking for."

Church secretary Debbie Gillette, wife of Fort Worth police patrolman Chip Gillette, who was the first officer on the scene, says she has now read the book five times. "I think it is wonderful," she says. "It not only stirs tremendous emotion; it has promoted a great deal of healing within our church family. What Dr. Crawford has done is help a lot of us make sense of what happened and to understand that despite the terrible losses we suffered, we claimed a victory in the end. The church is still ours."

She says she's spoken to dozens of others who have read the book and heard nothing but high praise.

David Griffin, a clinical social worker whose 14-year-old daughter Cassie was among the Wedgwood victims, says that reading the book was difficult yet therapeutic. "We're very pleased with the job Dr. Crawford did. Yes, the ugly part of the story is there--a sad commentary on our society. But the book also explains that to find the good in people and the world we have to understand the bad things happening today. What comes across clearly in the book is that we are involved in a spiritual war."

"For those of us so close to the story," adds pastor Meredith, "it is not an easy book to read. It renews some feelings that are still difficult to deal with. I've spoken with people who say they can only read it in bits at a time. But everyone realizes there is a strong and important message in it."

A random check of Fort Worth bookstores indicated that demand for the book was high even before it reached the shelves, and sales in the past week have ranged from "brisk" to "steady." "We're continuing to reorder it," says Heather Dauphinee at a local Barnes & Noble.

What they are selling is a literary hybrid.

In truth, Crawford's book isn't likely to satisfy the hardcore devotee of true-crime tales. At the same time, it may cause those who visit their neighborhood Christian bookstore in search of another feel-good spiritual tome to wonder at a book so focused on violence. Still, within its 380 pages there is more dawning of light than night of tragedy. The author wisely deals quickly with the already written and re-written minute-by-minute details of the carnage, and moves his readers into the hearts and minds of those affected by the event. In a spare and straightforward manner, Crawford allows grieving parents and still-in-shock teens to tell their poignant stories. And he explores the recovery process of the church and its members, liberally sprinkling in chapter and verse, leaving no doubt it is a religious book written for those in search of spiritual answers, not bloody details.

Sitting in his Seminary office, Crawford admits that writing the book ranks as one of the most difficult tasks of his professional life. "I still remember the night it happened," he says, "and, like so many others, I went immediately into denial. I was numb, walking through a bad dream. I kept telling myself that something like this couldn't happen in a church, my church. In the days after, we all struggled with a lot of questions." His book, then, is an attempt to provide answers. Not about the psychological makeup of a killer; not about the manner in which police handled the investigation. There is no graphic language, no gruesome photographs. Instead, his book deals in scriptural strength and master plans; in good emerging to triumph over evil in its most satanic form. And it is that which provides Night of Tragedy, Dawning of Light its most redemptive value.  

Looking back on the emotional drain and anxieties that accompanied preparation of the book, will he ever become involved in such a project again?

Dr. Crawford smiles faintly. "Not today. Probably not anytime soon. But, maybe someday." Looking at a copy of the finished product sitting on his desk, he nods. "The rewards have far exceeded the difficulties."

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