Living Church of God leader Roderick Meredith says the fallen
in Brookfield on that dark day were martyrs
By Bill Stough and Dixon Cartwright
LONEDELL, Mo.--Roderick Meredith says he considers the seven people who died during the March 12 massacre during a Sabbath service in Wisconsin to be "martyrs" and "genuine heroes" because they lost their lives while in the act of worshiping God.
In a interview during a conference telephone call with Journal writers in Missouri and Texas March 29, the presiding evangelist and founder of the Living Church of God, based in Charlotte, N.C., said the tragedy during a worship service in Brookfield, Wis., has prompted him to somberly reflect.
He said he is trying to understand how God could allow such a tragic event and as a result has resolved to be "more humble" in the way he conducts himself and his administration of the LCG.
Dr. Meredith, 74, also commented on media coverage of the event, his view of psychologists and the church's view of the murderer, 44-year-old LCG member Terry Ratzmann of New Berlin, Wis.
Bad things happen
Citing the recent earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia that killed 200,000 people, Dr. Meredith noted that God "does allow bad things to happen."
"We know God does promise to punish the world for sins," and "we can understand that in a general way," he said.
But "it's a little harder to understand" when tragedy "strikes right at God's church."
Yet, he noted, Hebrews 11 and many other scriptures talk about people of God who died violently at the hands of malefactors, including "some sawn asunder and fed to lions."
He referred as well to the martyr Stephen, whom the book of Acts depicts as "a man full of faith and power" who "all of a sudden was stoned to death, with rocks crushing his skull--awful, horrible. Why did God permit Stephen to be killed so quickly?"
God allows awful things to happen to good people "sometimes in a way we do not always understand," Dr. Meredith concluded.
But, since God does permit those bad things to happen, He must have a purpose, or even "a number of purposes," in "allowing us to go through trials and tests. God has put us here to learn lessons, you know, for all eternity."
Well-wishes from other groups
During the LCG's time of mourning the loss of seven of its members (eight including Mr. Ratzmann), the church is encouraged by recent well-wishes from other Church of God groups, Dr. Meredith said. He noted that members of the United Church of God and "David Hulme's group" (the Church of God an International Community) and others have offered their condolences.
"And we deeply appreciate that. It makes us all feel closer, and I hope that this can help us all be drawn together. Even though we have different focuses in our work and the way we carry out the mission, nevertheless we can love and appreciate one another, certainly helping draw many of God's people together, perhaps into a togetherness we did not have."
Among the dead was the pastor of the LCG congregation that met at Brookfield, 51-year-old Randy Gregory. Mr. Ratzmann fired first on the Gregory family, killing Mr. Gregory and his teenage son James and critically wounding Mr. Gregory's wife, Marjean (whom doctors expect to fully recover).
(For a list of the dead and injured, see this issue's lead article, beginning on page 1.)
"Randy Gregory was not a combative figure," Dr. Meredith said. "He was a kind, gentle person, so these things God allows but doesn't cause."
God allows evil to affect His people perhaps because He "realizes His people can be more profoundly humbled and drawn back to Him in a way that something else might not do.
"He allows it for a reason that we don't always fully understand."
Perhaps a fuller realization of the reasons will come to the people affected "as the years go by," Dr. Meredith said.
The news media
The LCG founder commented on the approach of news media to the events of March 12. In general, most newspapers and electronic media were fair and objective, he said, with the notable exception of Geraldo Rivera.
Mr. Rivera, of the Fox News cable television network, painted the LCG as an anarchistic cult that encourages its members to pack and use guns.
Even a former Worldwide Church of God member who appeared with Mr. Rivera as a critic of the LCG reportedly felt compelled to correct the host and note that the LCG, as is the case with most churches descended from the WCG, teaches pacifism, not gunplay.
Of Mr. Geraldo's report, Dr. Meredith said it was "of course awful and typical of Geraldo Rivera, I guess. It was terribly unfair and sensationalist and so on."
Two fair reports
Dr. Meredith singled out two articles he said contained fair and balanced coverage, one in The New York Times and one on Christianity Today magazine's Web site.
The Times article, he said, noted that the LCG is "trying to restore apostolic Christianity, how we keep the Sabbath and the Ten Commandments and how we were trying to teach our people to get back to the practices of the Jerusalem Church of God . . . That was helpful and fair."
He also commended Mark Kellner, author of an article posted at Christianity Today's Web site.
Mr. Kellner, a former WCG member who works in public relations at the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Md., "said he knew that I was a gentle person and easy to talk to, and he'd been with me, and I never taught violence, and we don't teach violence," Dr. Meredith said.
Dr. Meredith said the church's practices and Scripture-inspired mission do not inspire violence in its members as it carries on its work, which it patterns after the efforts of WCG founder Herbert W. Armstrong.
"Not that we're trying to outdo him," he said, "but he would say let's grow in grace and knowledge. We've softened some things and improved some things in trying to get a worldwide work done, including preaching the full gospel of the Kingdom of God and the Ezekiel warning, and we're trying to do that very heartfeltly, and also of course restore apostolic Christianity and teach the commandments of God, the whole way of God, as they did in the early apostolic days."
For newspeople, church members and others who would like to investigate Dr. Meredith's beliefs, he recommends reading his favorite scripture, Galatians 2:20 ("I am crucified with Christ . . ."), and his booklet The Ten Commandments (available at www.livingcog.org or 2301 Crown Centre Dr., Charlotte, N.C. 28227, U.S.A.).
The booklet expounds "how we're not to kill, not even to hate, and we're to have outflowing concern for all human beings made in God's image."
Concern for the Ratzmann family
Dr. Meredith talked about Mr. Ratzmann, who took his own life only seconds after killing seven of his fellow LCG members.
"We tell people to forgive others and not carry bitterness around," Dr. Meredith said, "so when Mr. [Charles] Bryce [director of church administration] informed me from Milwaukee on the phone that the family was wanting us to perform the funeral for Terry Ratzmann, I said let's do it."
Dr. Meredith, echoing the comments of many other Living Church of God members The Journal has talked with about the shooter, said the Terry Ratzmann who killed seven church members, then committed suicide, was not the normal Terry Ratzmann.
"I think he was rammed by an evil spirit," Dr. Meredith said, "and most of the ministers feel that way. He was always more of a loner and a little different, but he never professed violence. We didn't know he was involved with guns; we didn't even know he had a gun.
"We found out later he had been a marksman in the Coast Guard.
"Anyway, we felt sorry for him and his family, and he may have been grabbed by an evil spirit. I understand that a strange look came over his face. This was not the normal Terry Ratzmann, so, yes, we were glad to perform his funeral and show concern for his family."
Dr. Meredith acknowledged that he feels the need to make a moderate course correction in his approach to his leadership responsibilities.
"Well, I'm going to try to be even more humble in the way that I conduct myself," he said.
Further, maybe he had said some things he shouldn't have.
"I have told our brethren and our office staff here [in North Carolina] again and again that I do not have the personal capacity of a Mr. Armstrong or Ted [Armstrong] or some of the great leaders in the work.
"I don't have their voice, their personality, their speed of mind, and they know I've said that. I'm not some great charismatic leader.
"And I may have said more than I should have about us being the spear point of the work, although I used that term to encourage our people.
"Well, we're not as big as United, and I'm not God's prophet like Gerald Flurry [founder of the Philadelphia Church of God], and I don't use any titles like that. But I've tried to encourage our people by saying we're doing the work and let them know there is a reason for our existence.
"But I want to be more humble in my whole approach and get as close to God as I possibly can. I'm going to try to do that more."
Not harping on prophecy
Dr. Meredith reacted to news reports attempting to link the killings to a sermon or sermons on prophecy Mr. Ratzmann might have heard during a church service.
But, the church leader said, "we only preach on prophecy in church about once every two or three months, so we're not harping on prophecy to the brethren."
He noted that a third to a half of the church's television broadcasts touch on prophecy, and he said he may decide to direct that the speakers on the broadcast "maybe not come on quite as strong as I have and so on," but the broadcasts have never contained gratuitous "ranting and raving."
"We don't want to come on too strong, but we do want the right balance."
Memorial at the Sheraton
Dr. Meredith commented on the impromptu memorial in a snowbank on the grounds of the Sheraton hotel in Brookfield where the shootings happened. The display consisted of Styrofoam crosses with the victims' and shooter's names on them, along with flowers, pictures and, in the case of the children, toys and other items.
"I thought the crosses and people coming and putting those candles and all that kind of thing was very sincerely thoughtful on people's parts," Dr. Meredith said. "Although we don't emphasize the cross, and some of the independent people we have in all the various Church of God fellowships get very strict about crosses, those little things do not offend me. Jesus died on the cross, and we don't use it as an object of worship, but these people meant well, and we appreciate their sincere outflowing concern."
In fact, the compassion shown by the LCG members' neighbors in the Milwaukee area helps him have more compassion for other people, Dr. Meredith said.
A tragedy "can happen here; it can happen anytime; life is fleeting. Every human life is precious, and we need to be concerned and more humbled and have more compassion."
He noted that the LCG planned to place an announcement as an advertisement in a daily newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to "thank the community," including police and fire fighters, for "their love and kindness" in the wake of the killings. (See a copy of that advertisement elsewhere on this page of The Journal.)
Free to consult
Some news reports quoted LCG members who were present in the hotel meeting room during the shooting as saying the church did not encourage its members to seek the advice and counsel of psychologists for certain problems they might be having. The Journal asked Dr. Meredith if Terry Ratzmann would have felt free to consult a psychologist if he were experiencing mental or emotional problems.
"I'm sure that's not a simple answer," Dr. Meredith said. "But, well, yes, I think he would have felt free. We've never had a church teaching against doing that, although I'm sure that individual members or elders at times would say it's better to get the counsel of the church.
"But on the other hand some of the ministers have definitely encouraged people to go to psychologists, and under the circumstances, if we had realized how bad off he was, we would have encouraged him to get some help."
Psychological counseling is an "imperfect tool," Dr. Meredith continued, and "many psychologists deal in ways that are unscriptural and leave God out," but "on the other hand we don't ever have any blanket condemnation of it as far as people going for help."
Dr. Meredith commented on news reports that speculated that the church's mission of warning the world could have made its members feel isolated from other people.
"Some few people might have been affected that way," Dr. Meredith said, but "we have perceived that and tried to help people to try to love everybody and to know that we should love our neighbors and reach out to them."
But if someone is already predisposed to be a "loner," he said, "who knows how anything could have affected him?"
Dr. Meredith commented on a report that speculated that the LCG would no longer be able to buy television time because of the bad publicity the tragedy generated.
"I think so far that that seems to be totally wrong," he said. "We have had very encouraging, supportive comments from some of the media people that we've dealt with, and no one has refused to put us on their stations, even stations we're starting to go on, and they have heard of this, very definitely.
"So God Himself seems to be opening up more doors, you know-- radio, TV and even ad opportunities--and a number of them even since the tragedy.
"This tragedy, it is a horrible tragedy, and we really feel for the people who were hurt, but it has made the LCG better known, and perhaps that can be used for good.
"God promises all things work together for good. More people will now hear what we are really about. They'll find out we believe in apostolic Christianity, and we believe in really doing what Jesus says, not just using Jesus' name, and they can be helped in that way.
"Mr. Armstrong often said God turns lemons into lemonade, and I think God will do that here."
Dr. Meredith said he doesn't think the tragedy will adversely affect the standing and reputation of the LCG with other Church of God groups. In other words, other Sabbatarian Christian groups that trace their roots back through the WCG are not trying to distance themselves from the LCG.
"They seem to be showing us concern and active support," he said, "and I've talked to some of their leaders--not to mention any names--who have sent us nice E-mails and letters, and one or two have called me personally, and I appreciate that very much."
A little annoyed
Dr. Meredith at this point in the interview mentioned that he felt offended some 12 years ago when he left the WCG to found the Global Church of God. He left the WCG because of that church's drastic changes of doctrine after the death of the founder, Herbert Armstrong, leading eventually to the WCG becoming a church that believes, for example, that it is better to meet for weekly church services on Sunday rather than the Sabbath.
Dr. Meredith was annoyed when other church members leaving the WCG for the same reason in the 1990s didn't support and join the Global Church of God rather than starting up their own churches, including, eventually, the United Church of God (the largest of the splits from the WCG).
(A split in Global in 1998 resulted in Dr. Meredith forming the Living Church of God.)
"I was not mad when that happened, but I was hurt," he said. As one of the senior evangelists [in the WCG], I felt I had to start the Global Church of God twelve and a quarter years ago, in late December 1992, then officially in early '93, and many of these people started these other churches since that time and did not come with us, even though they knew we were preaching the whole truth.
"We didn't fully understand why [they didn't join up with us], although many at the time told me they were afraid of one-man government. At any rate, I wish they had come with us."
The other Church of God congregations and ministries that formed independently of the Global Church of God are "doing well with the understanding they have," Dr. Meredith said, "and we're trying to do the same as we understand it. Even though there may not be some political merger [with other groups] in the future, we can have a deep spiritual appreciation of and encourage each other, and perhaps God will bring us closer together."
Dr. Meredith said he is happy with recent statistics that point to the LCG's effectiveness in its evangelistic efforts.
"We are having a 51 percent increase just so far this year," he said, "and TV response is up 52 percent over this same time last year, and our brand-new-caller count is up 61 percent, so we're running around 1,900 to 2,000 responses every week."
Dr. Meredith also talked about this newspaper.
"I wanted to let you know that this thing in New Zealand, when some man there was not allowed to come to services after he was delivering your paper, I just wanted to say we don't have a policy on that at all."
Dr. Meredith's comment about The Journal's New Zealand distributor referred to an ultimatum the New Zealand LCG pastor issued to Bruce Porteous, who lives in Auckland. Either Mr. Porteous could continue attending LCG Sabbath services or continue to distribute The Journal, but not both.
Mr. Porteous quit attending church with the LCG and still distributes this newspaper. (See "New Zealand Church Pastor Issues Ultimatum," The Journal, Nov. 30, 2004.)
"Anyway, we feel good toward you guys," Dr. Meredith said. "I don't always agree with everything that's in The Journal, and sometimes history does get rewritten in a strange way. I lived through a lot of that history."
Dr. Meredith concluded his remarks by describing seven of the fallen brethren on March 12 in Brookfield as martyrs.
"Some of our members--one of them was named Gerald Miller--shielded others with his own body and took four bullets. They were genuine heroes. [See a photo of Mr. Miller on page 6.] Others may disagree with me, but I feel our people there were martyrs because they were in the act of worshiping God, the true God, and keeping His commandments when this happened.
"But, just as God allowed Stephen and James and John the Baptist to die--John's head was chopped off, and our very Savior died in God's service--it happened to us. We just didn't think it would happen in this way.
"But, perhaps because of how close we are to the end and taking into consideration the wrath of Satan against God's people too, God did allow this to happen."