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Living Church of God brethren mourn, bury their dead, ponder what happened, move on
 
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Living Church of God brethren mourn, bury their dead,
ponder what happened, move on

The following first-person account of events and circumstances shortly after the deaths of eight Living Church of God members in Brookfield, Wis., is written by the publisher of The Journal.

By Dixon Cartwright

BIG SANDY, Texas--I arrived in Milwaukee Thursday, March 17, just in time to rent a car and motel room and attend the Living Church of God's press conference in Milwaukee.

John Ogwyn of Kilgore, Texas, a spokesman for LCG headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., answered questions from several reporters, including this one for The Journal, about the tragic events of the previous Saturday in nearby Brookfield.

The questions from writers for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other newspapers and TV and radio newspeople centered on how something like the Sabbath-service shootings of March 12 could have happened.

On that day in Brookfield, 15 miles west of Milwaukee, LCG member Terry Ratzmann, 44, who lived with his mother and sister in another Milwaukee suburb, New Berlin, shot a dozen people, killing eight, including himself, in a matter of only about a minute.

Church members are still asking themselves how such a thing could have happened. How could God have let it happen?

Likewise the news media search for answers. As a result, they speculate and ask probing and sometimes irritating questions.

A natural line of their incessant (for a couple of weeks) inquiry led them to wonder if the church could be the cause of the tragedy.

Mr. Ogwyn did a decent job of answering questions. I assume queries less than pleasant for him might have been the ones about the church's stand on seeking outside help for mental and emotional problems.

He answered that the LCG did not tell Mr. Ratzmann he could not consult with a psychologist or other professional and would not have censured him had he done that.

Mr. Ogwyn understandably did not bring up that the Churches of God as a whole, especially 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, do have a history of discouraging consultations with professionals in the areas of mental health and medicine. Much of that approach has changed in many of the churches, but that's the history.

During my stay in this area, I attended the press conference, three funerals for five people and the first Milwaukee-area LCG Sabbath service after the shootings. I also interviewed members of the family of Bart Oliver, at 15 the youngest person killed on that tragic day.

Funeral for three people

The first funeral I attended was for three people: Pastor Randy Gregory and his 18-year-old son James and 74-year-old Harold Diekmeier.

This was at 7 p.m. Thursday, the day I arrived in Milwaukee, at St. Francis Community Center. The service had originally been scheduled for another location but was moved to the community center because of the anticipated size of the crowd.

That turned out to be a good move. Many of the 600 or 700 people who attended could not be seated and therefore stood in the back of the auditorium and in a hallway and even in an adjoining bar.

Conducting the service was Charles Bryce, who lives near the LCG's headquarters in North Carolina and serves as director of church administration. Mr. Bryce stayed in Wisconsin for several days helping with arrangements that included funerals and locating a new place to meet for Sabbath services two days after the first funeral.

Also speaking at this funeral, while a heavy snow was falling, was Rand Millich of Kansas City, Mo., who serves as regional pastor for the U.S. Midwest. Mr. Millich is temporary pastor until LCG headquarters transfers in a new permanent pastor for the Milwaukee area.

After these two men delivered funeral messages, Roderick Meredith of Charlotte, the 74-year-old founder and presiding evangelist of the Living Church of God, delivered the closing prayer.

I had shaken hands with Dr. Meredith in the midst of the crowd before the beginning of the service. We talked briefly about a possible Journal interview in which he could discuss the shootings and their aftermath.

Mr. Millich and Mr. Bryce did a good job with their funeral messages. The funerals and the Sabbath services I attended all had in common that the speakers spoke gently to the LCG members and their families and friends.

They berated no one; they blamed the tragedy not even on Terry Ratzmann. They blamed it on the devil.

This funeral was a little different from the other two I would attend in that there were no separate eulogies and reminiscences of the deceased by other speakers. This service followed a more-traditional Church of God format, and it included words of solace inspired by the tragedy along with the traditional message of the hope of the resurrection and Kingdom of God.

Dave Havir, pastor of the Church of God Big Sandy, attended this funeral. He had planned a trip, by car, to this part of the country before the shootings and modified his itinerary so he could visit with family members and friends of some of the victims and attend two of the funerals. Dave also attended Bart Oliver's funeral the next day.

Ratzmann funeral

On Friday, March 17, I attended Terry Ratzmann's funeral at 12:30 p.m. in a mortuary chapel in the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield.

Before the service I saw Shirley Ratzmann, Mr. Ratzmann's mother, walk into the foyer of the funeral parlor. I was close by when a man said words to her that I was fairly impressed with. He turned out to be Tom Geiger, who kindly informed Mrs. Ratzmann there was no animosity between church members and her family.

In the chapel, just before the service, the music playing over the sound system was a nice version of Pachelbel's "Canon." On two video screens at the front of the room, audience members could watch a slide show of Terry Ratzmann as a child and adult.

I thought Glen Gilchrist of Albuquerque, N.M., an LCG elder who pastors churches in New Mexico and Arizona as well as seeing after members in parts of Colorado and Utah, did an excellent job in his sermon. He started by saying words to this effect:

"I refuse to allow this aberration, this horrible thing that happened, to define the life of my friend Terry Ratzmann."

Mr. Gilchrist and his wife, Diane, and children were close friends of Mr. Ratzmann. Until June 2000 Mr. Gilchrist had served the Milwaukee congregation as a nonemployed elder before the Gilchrists moved to New Mexico.

Mr. Gilchrist then said something like this: "The fact that this tragedy happened does not mean God does not love us."

He delivered a message that was not exactly emotional, but it was full of a kind of controlled emotion--effective, and surely consoling--to family and friends of Mr. Ratzmann.

Before Mr. Gilchrist began his sermon he announced that the family of Terry Ratzmann had requested that there be a moment of silence in honor of those who had been killed. There was then a moment of silence, which must have lasted about a minute. We sat there, some with heads bowed.

Then Mr. Gilchrist announced that the Ratzmann family wished to express its regrets to members of the Living Church of God for the horrible thing that had happened.

In his sermon Mr. Gilchrist said some people in the Bible did wicked things, including Paul (he killed Christians), David (we all know what David did) and others (I don't remember the others he named from the Bible; I was not taking notes).

The difference between biblical personages who committed atrocities and Terry Ratzmann: They had time to change their lives, to go in a different direction, before they died.

Yet, Mr. Gilchrist continued, our lives do not end, really, at death, because at some point for everyone, including his friend Terry, life will continue. Matters will someday properly sort out and resolve themselves for Terry Ratzmann.

Mr. Ratzmann was a close friend of the Gilchrists. He visited them on occasion, and they visited him, though he lived in Wisconsin and they in New Mexico. They talked weekly by phone.

Mr. Gilchrist called Mr. Ratzmann a "renaissance man." He had unusual and eclectic interests.

They included his love of exotic carnivorous plants. (A small exhibit of his carnivorous plants sat on a table near the casket during the service.) He was a skilled soap maker, frequently presenting exotic homemade bars to his friends and neighbors. (A small exhibit of bars of soap sat next to the carnivorous plants.)

Mr. Gilchrist said his friend was skilled in technical matters, specifically computers. When Terry would acquire the latest technology, he would hand down his old computers and other gadgets to the Gilchrist family.

Mr. Ratzmann had an unusual sense of humor. Mr. Gilchrist received two or three funny E-mails just about every day from him.

Mr. Gilchrist talked about what the Bible says about the end times, the resurrection, the Kingdom. He said he was explaining these matters because they were what Terry Ratzmann believed.

Toward the end of the service Mr. Gilchrist announced that the Ratzmann family had requested that he invite anyone who would like to make a few remarks about Terry to walk to the microphone and speak. Mr. Gilchrist mentioned that, on such short notice and since any remarks would be extemporaneous, there might not be anyone who wished to speak.

However, he could scarcely get those words out of his mouth when someone did come to the microphone.

Several people spoke. I don't recall everything that people said, but I can remember some.

Mr. Ratzmann's sisters Debbie and Cheryl told how protective and loving a big brother he had been.

Debbie talked about the time, when she was maybe 12 years old, she broke her arm (when falling from a horse), and, even though she and 14-year-old Terry were always bickering about something, he made haste to pick her up and carry her as fast as he could to make sure she received the proper attention to her injury.

Cheryl said something similar. She had wandered away from the family residence when she was 3. No one could find her until Terry found her. Rather than scold her, he sat down beside her until she was ready to come back to the house. Terry was the protector.

Another person to come to the mike was Diane Gilchrist, who attended college at Ambassador College, Big Sandy, as Diane Grede. Mrs. Gilchrist told of the close relationship of Terry Ratzmann to her family. He was one of the Gilchrists' best friends; they were his best friends. She said the Terry who committed the heinous act was not the Terry they knew.

Also speaking was Tom Geiger. Tom's sister's son, Bart Oliver, was among the dead. After the funeral, out in the hallway, Tom pointed his son out to me. Robert Geiger, 12, had been sitting next to Bart when he died.

Another of the extemporaneous speakers was a man who apparently had been a close friend of Mr. Ratzmann who assured the 75 or so people in the audience that Terry could not have been "conscious" of what he was doing when he shot his friends. This man was obviously doing his best to console the Ratzmann family and the church members.

Toward the end of the service a man walked to the front of the chapel carrying a trumpet and played taps.

Then a woman, wearing a badge--I assume she was with the funeral home--took a folded flag from the lid of the casket and said some quiet words to Mrs. Ratzmann, sitting on the front row. I heard part of what she said. She started with "On behalf of the president of the United States . . ."

I had noticed while watching the slide show before the service that some of the photos showed Mr. Ratzmann in a uniform. I heard later that he had been a member of the Coast Guard.

Bart Oliver's funeral

That evening was Bart Oliver's funeral, in the large ballroom of a hotel in Waukesha.

Hundreds of people attended, maybe 500 or 600. Many were teenagers. Before the service the family had arranged for refreshments and for tables for visitors to sit at. Bart's friends stood and sat, some talking, some even playing table games, before the beginning of the service.

In the front of the ballroom, near the casket, was a screen showing a slide show of Bart as a child and as a teenager.

Mr. Gilchrist also conducted this funeral, which also featured several eulogies by family members and friends.

The service featured several pieces of music, including Bart's favorite hymn, "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," vocal solos, and Bart's violin teacher playing the violin.

A small choir of six Church of God members sang. It was an unusual music group in that its members represented five Church of God fellowships: the Congregational Fellowship of God a Cooperative Network of Believers, the Living Church of God, the United Church of God, the Worldwide Church of God and an unnamed home fellowship. (See a picture of the singing group on this page.)

The eulogies included statements from Bart's uncle Tom Geiger, reminiscences from family friends such as the father of Bart's best friend, and an impromptu eulogy delivered by Bart's uncle Hal Geiger.

Hal later said he understood he would be introducing the eulogies and did not realize he would be giving one himself. When someone announced that he would deliver one too, he did so--impromptu--and did just fine. No one could have known he had not planned to give it.

Mr. Gilchrist and the eulogists described Bart as a friendly and fun-loving 15-year-old with a quirky sense of humor, a collector of toy stuffed animals, a student of the violin and a fan of blonde girls and women.

One of the speakers noted that, from his birth, Bart had liked girls, especially blondes. Uncle Tom noted in his eulogy that Bart was wearing--as he lay in his casket--a tie with Marilyn Monroe's picture on it.

Postshooting Sabbath service

The next day was the first Sabbath after the shooting. I learned that the LCG's services would take place west of Milwaukee and west of Brookfield in a school out on a county road near Oconomowoc.

As I was walking from my car to the school entrance about 1:30, an official from LCG headquarters, corporate risk manager Tom Turner, informed me that I was welcome to attend as a Church of God member but not as a reporter. He asked that I not take notes for an article, not take pictures and not talk as a reporter to anyone before or after services.

I agreed to the restrictions. As a result, I have no notes of anything that was said during the service and potluck meal and no photos of anyone in attendance at the service or potluck.

As we ended our brief conversation, Mr. Turner headed toward a reporter 100 yards away lugging heavy-looking video equipment toward the school entrance.

I never saw the reporter again, so I assume after Mr. Turner talked with him he turned around and left.

About 150 people were there for the service, quite a few more than the normal 60 or so who had usually attended the Milwaukee-area congregation of the LCG.

Leading songs was Mr. Gilchrist, relying on the LCG's new hymnal. The new songbook, including hymns by Dwight Armstrong but also by other songsters, such as Ross Jutsum, Mark Graham and Paula Murphey, was hot off the press. In view of the recent occurrences in Wisconsin, LCG headquarters decided to expedite the shipping of the hymnals to the area so the Milwaukee brethren could be the first congregation to sing from them.

Delivering the main sermon was Mr. Bryce. Also speaking was Mr. Millich. Both men took pains to say words of consolation to the brethren. There was no hint of laying the blame for what had happened on sins of omission or commission by the LCG members. In my opinion the messages were well done.

Afterwards was a big potluck meal. United and other Church of God congregations in the area, I understand, provided the feast.

People stood in line, then stood in little groups or sat in folding chairs and ate, then talked for hours.

I saw Chandra Frazier with her mother, Ella, huddled with Dorothy Hodzinski, talking for a long time. Someone pointed out to me that Jerry Miller, one of the church members who had been killed one week earlier, had moved quickly to get between Mrs. Hodzinski and Terry Ratzmann. As a result, Mr. Miller died, but Mrs. Hodzinski lived to attend Sabbath services again.

I saw people I didn't expect to see. For example, I met a short, nattily dressed man named Don Roth. I had gotten to know Mr. Roth several years before in the course of some research and writing I was doing for The Journal but had never met him in person. He and his wife, Alice, are not LCG members, but they drove from their home in Watertown, Wis., to be there for the Sabbath service immediately after the shooting.

The Geiger-Oliver interview

That evening, after several hours of visiting with several people (but not as a reporter), I drove to Hal Geiger's house to conduct an interview with him and his brother Tom and, as it turned out, their sister Loni Oliver, Bart's mother.

Tom rode with me the 30 or 40 miles to Hal's house in the car I had rented at the Milwaukee airport. During that trip a reporter for a local television station called Tom on his cell phone and conducted an interview.

Reporters had learned that Tom--unlike quite a few people--would readily talk with them. He said he had lost count of the number of interviews he had given to reporters for local, national and even international media outlets since the events of March 12.

I appreciated Tom Geiger's willingness to talk not only with me but with writers for newspapers, wire services, radio and TV and anyone who wanted to talk with him. I think that is the wisest approach to take with journalists, especially concerning religion-related subjects.

More of the story

I attended three funerals for five people. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

The funeral for Jerry Miller, 44, was March 17 in Verona, Wis.

The funeral for Richard Reeves, 58, was March 17 in South Milwaukee, Wis.

The funeral for Gloria Critari, 55, was March 18 in Milwaukee.

Injured but recovered or recovering are Marjean Gregory of Gurnee, Wis.; Matthew Kaulbach, 21, of Pewaukee, Wis.; Angel Varichak, 19, of Helenville, Wis.; and Lindsay Maughmer, 10, of South Milwaukee, Wis.

Headed home

Sunday morning, after checking out of my motel near the airport, I ate breakfast, took my car back to the car-return place and flew back to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

I left with the impression that the Living Church of God folks were handling well the aftermath of the tragedy.

The thought did occur to me that perhaps they were seeming to handle things so well because they were still in shock.

When I mentioned that thought to Mr. Gilchrist, he told me he doesn't think they were in shock.

"I've never seen a situation that more reflected God's intervention in the hearts and minds of members, giving them the comfort and strength to endure the trial," he said.

"Their restraint and approach, then, were reflective of God's love and the prayerful support of so many of God's people all around the world."

Maybe Mr. Gilchrist is right. Whatever the case, they were making the best of a terrible situation and demonstrating an almost superhuman kindness and restraint in their discussions of Terry Ratzmann.

Restraint is not the right word. That would imply they're fighting to hold something in, to keep from blurting out words of frustration and hostility. But that didn't seem to be the case. Maybe tranquillity is the right word.

A few days after my trip to Wisconsin Bill Stough and I conducted our interview with LCG founder Rod Meredith (see page 1 of this issue).

Dr. Meredith allowed that he foresaw some changes in his and his church's approach to their ministry because of the sad event. These would not be because the church was to blame for what happened, which is alleged by some and which I do not for a minute believe. Bad things, inexplicable things, simply happen. They happen alike to the religious and to the irreverent.

Still, an occurrence of this magnitude makes people rethink every thought and take another look at everything they do, and effects are bound to be felt for years by the people who knew and loved the eight people who died March 12 in Brookfield.

Young, middle-aged and elderly Christians were shot and died in a mass murder during a Sabbath service. Other children and middle-aged and elderly Christians heard, then saw, then comprehended what was happening.

You can't live through something like that and ever be exactly the same.



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