An unlikely instrument of God's grace-off-again, on-again youth group member, with a criminal record, no job, and on the verge of losing an apartment-points a suicidal gunman to Christ, even as he looked down the barrel of a semiautomatic Ruger.
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More than a hundred gunshots had already ripped through the Wedgwood Baptist Church sanctuary when Jeremiah Neitz faced off with Larry Gene Ashbrook. Ashbrook pointed his hot Ruger 9-mm semiautomatic at Jeremiah. The 19-year-old pointed Ashbrook toward Jesus Christ.
Standing a pew-length away from the man who had just murdered seven people because they were Christians, Jeremiah told Ashbrook: "What you need is Jesus Christ in your life." Ashbrook, a twisted loner, refused God's 11th-hour gospel offer and shot himself in the head. But that night, Jeremiah joined the Christians at Columbine in standing up for God while staring down the barrelof a gun.
A member of South Wayside Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Jeremiah had attended the youth rally at nearby Wedgwood on Sept. 15 to celebrate the national high-school prayer event See You at the Pole. Once at the rally, the South Wayside teens and their youth pastor, Adam Hammond, took seats at the rear center of Wedgwood's huge, balconied sanctuary to hear the Christian rock band Forty Days. "We were inside, listening to music, when we heard these popping noises," says Jeremiah. "Adam and I were going to walk out to see what was going on and the glass just shattered in the [sanctuary] doors. We ran and yelled 'Get down! Get down!' and got down in our seats."
By the time Ashbrook entered the sanctuary, he had already murdered two Wedgwood members and injured at least three more. "The guy just came in the room and started shooting everybody," Jeremiah says. "I got up [off the floor] and sat in the pew and just started praying."
Witnesses remember seeing Jeremiah praying during the rampage. "He had his hands folded and he was closing his eyes and bowing his head," recalls 12-year-old Caleb Payne, who could see Jeremiah from his spot near the front of the sanctuary. "I thought the gunman was going to shoot him."
Indeed, Jeremiah's prayerful posture irritated Ashbrook. By the time he spotted the youth, the shooter had already riddled the sanctuary with bullets and killed five more people. But witnesses say he appeared frustrated that most of his hostages did not cower before him in fear. Many, who could not see the dead and injured sprawled beneath the pews, believed Ashbrook was part of a scheduled skit (see WORLD, Oct. 2). Kids popped up from behind pews chanting, "Shoot me! Shoot me!" Muffled laughter rippled up from the floor of the auditorium. Standing in the back, Ashbrook lashed out at the praying Christian: "You believe in all this religious bull___? Your religion [expletive] sucks."
"No, sir, it doesn't," replied Jeremiah, turning in his seat to face the gunman.
"Yes, it does!" spat Ashbrook, becoming more agitated.
"No, sir, it doesn't," repeated Jeremiah: "What you need is Jesus Christ in your life." Gunfire rang out as Ashbrook fired several more shots. But he did not fire at Jeremiah. Witnesses say Jeremiah's words seemed to shock and confuse Ashbrook. The gunman slumped down into a pew on the rear wall of the sanctuary, a look of disbelief on his face.
When Ashbrook sat down, Jeremiah stood up.
Mr. Hammond, who was lying on the floor near Jeremiah's feet, pulled desperately on the youth's pant leg, begging him to duck down out of the shooter's line of fire. But Jeremiah would not be moved. "I looked at [Jeremiah] and thought, 'What is this guy doing?'" remembers Trey Herweck, a 24-year-old seminarian and youth worker who watched the strange confrontation unfold. Mr. Herweck thought Jeremiah seemed "fearless."
Then Ashbrook leveled his gun at Jeremiah's head. "Sir, you can shoot me if you want," Jeremiah said: "I know where I'm going-I'm going to heaven."
"I thought ... the gunman was going to come over and shoot all of us," remembers Mr. Hammond. "I honestly didn't think this would make the gunman stop. I thought it would enrage him."
When the next gunshot rang out, Mr. Hammond expected to see Jeremiah fall to the floor dead. Instead, Ashbrook had put his Ruger to his own head and fired a siege-ending bullet.
Later, outside, as survivors sobbed and emergency lights spun over the post-shooting scene now so sickeningly familiar in America, Jeremiah collapsed in the grass. Youth pastor Hammond "was telling me I said that stuff. I just freaked out and fell out in the grass and laid there for like a minute or so. It just hit me what I had done."
Jeremiah remembers his exchange with Ashbrook-an exchange some believe may have preempted the shooter's use of the more than 60 bullets he had left-but he says it didn't "seem like me saying the words. I said it in a conscious state," he says, but remembers that it was like watching himself in a movie.
In fact, Jeremiah's analysis of the face-off is somewhat like that of an extra who suddenly finds himself center-stage in a big-budget action sequence:
Why did he get down on the floor, but then get back up in the pew and sit down?
"I don't know."
What made him turn around and confront Ashbrook?
"I don't know."
Why didn't Ashbrook shoot you dead?
"I don't know."
These things, Jeremiah says, all just ... happened. As far as he's concerned, God stopped the gunman and used Jeremiah to tell Ashbrook about Jesus one last time.
Jeremiah is an unlikely clutch evangelist-perhaps even more unlikely than Columbine's Cassie Bernall, who, when her killer asked her if she believed in God, said yes, prompting him to shoot her in the face. While Cassie had been walking confidently with Christ for two years before she died in April, Jeremiah had been struggling to reconnect with his faith for just over two months before Wedgwood. A former football player who had dropped out of high school, Jeremiah moved out of his parents' house at 18 and quickly fell in with-to use his word-"gangstas." His got his girlfriend Shellie, 16, pregnant and he asked her to move in with him. Convictions on charges of theft and assault landed Jeremiah on probation. He lost his job, and the guy who shared his apartment, Jeremiah says, skipped out on the rent.
"I was two days from being evicted from my apartment," he remembers, adding that to keep the apartment, he would have had to come up with more than $600. His rope was getting short when he remembered someone who had once told Jeremiah to call if he ever needed anything: Adam Hammond.
Mr. Hammond had pastored Jeremiah in the South Wayside youth group when Jeremiah was 14. When Jeremiah turned to "the wild life," the two drifted apart for more than a year. But when Jeremiah needed help, Mr. Hammond was there. The same day Jeremiah called him, a Wednesday in July, Mr. Hammond helped him find a job and a cheaper apartment.
But Jeremiah did not have $75 to pay the deposit on the apartment. As it turned out, Mr. Hammond and the youth group had been picking up trash as part of a community-service project and someone discovered a $100 bill among the refuse. The kids all prayed that God would give them a chance to use the money for some ministry need. Mr. Hammond kept the bill in his desk drawer-until Jeremiah's need surfaced.
To pay the deposit, he handed Jeremiah the cash. "Here's a hundred dollars from God," Mr. Hammond said.
Jeremiah says that while he called Mr. Hammond looking for money, what he found in the end was love. "The kids in my youth group were so happy to see me," he says. "They were like, 'Jeremiah! Jeremiah!' and just hugging me and everything. I realized I do have good friends who really care about me, unlike the gangstas I was hanging out with before. I also realized that God was the most important thing in my life and that I had lost that. I needed to regain that relationship I had with God before I quit going to church."
Jeremiah now comes to church and spends 30 minutes a day praying and reading his Bible. Shellie is due to deliver Jessica Elizabeth any day and Jeremiah is looking forward to being a father. The couple knows now that their current arrangement of living together conflicts with God's design for families. Because Shellie's mother refuses to grant permission for her to marry-unemancipated minors cannot marry without a parent's consent-they plan to wed as soon as Shellie turns 18 in January.
For Mr. Hammond, Jeremiah's story is about not giving up on people. "God has shown me that there are no unimportant people in His eyes."
Jeremiah still doesn't know why Ashbrook committed suicide after their confrontation. But he does know this: that God is using the incident to glorify Himself. "I think He's trying to work through me with all this media [coverage] to tell everybody that there is a God and that He really does care about us," says Jeremiah, whose story has aired on ABC's 20/20. "Nobody would expect to hear that from somebody like me."
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