A couple embrace during a candlelight vigil at Heritage Park in Hesston on Friday night. In this predominantly Mennonite community, they pray for the victims of a mass shooting at Excel Industries. But they also pray for the shooter. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle
A couple embrace during a candlelight vigil at Heritage Park in Hesston on Friday night. In this predominantly Mennonite community, they pray for the victims of a mass shooting at Excel Industries. But they also pray for the shooter. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

Local

Hesston violence a theological dilemma for Mennonites

February 27, 2016 4:59 PM

HESSTON

In this predominantly Mennonite community, they pray for the victims.

But they also pray for the shooter.

The deaths of four people — including the gunman who went on a shooting spree Thursday in Hesston — are still fresh. And they are shocking to this quiet town.

One city administrator said he couldn’t remember the last time there was a homicide here.

For Mennonites, one of the key tenets of their faith is pacifism, meaning they don’t condone violence.

“We’re not blind to the fact that there is a lot of violence in our world. We’re not naive to say or expect that it will go away just because we want it to. But I think a lot of us are shocked that it happened here,” said Clayton Gladish, a pastor at Hesston Mennonite Church who has spent much of his time the past few days praying with community members.

How do pacifists respond to violence in their community?

Love.

VIDEO: Hesston victim's family pastor speaks

Tree of Life Church pastor Dylan Ector sees opportunity to bring community churches together to fight violence. (Mike Hutmacher, The Wichita Eagle)

mhutmacher@wichitaeagle.com

Peaceful town

Hesston, 35 miles north of Wichita, is a quiet town.

Founded in the late 1880s, about 3,700 people live there now.

“Hesston is such a tight-knit community,” said Clare Moore, Hesston city council member. “It’s the best small town in the nation.”

It’s home to several sizeable manufacturers, some of the biggest employers in Harvey County, including Excel Industries where the deaths occurred.

In a town this size, everyone is in some way connected to the company.

Three years ago, Excel Industries had about 350 employees but now employs about 1,000 people, Moore said.

Not many people lock our doors. Who would want to shoot us?

Clare Moore, Hesston city council member

“They’ve hired a lot of people,” Moore said. “Only about 11 percent of the employees live in town. Not many people lock our doors. Who would want to shoot us?”

Theological dilemma

Cedric Ford began his shooting spree in Newton. But it was brought to an end at Excel Industries in Hesston when he was shot and killed by the Hesston police chief.

Killing, even if it’s to save others, is a violent act.

It’s a theological dilemma for Mennonites, but it’s not a new one.

When good conflicts with evil there is no easy answer.

Kurt Horst, pastor of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston

“We are thankful for the lives he saved, but we grieve for what he had to do to save them and the impact that may have on him,” says Kurt Horst, pastor of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston.

“When good conflicts with evil there is no easy answer.”

Gladish, one of the pastors of Hesston Mennonite Church, says he also grapples with the fact that the shooter was killed.

“I understand why it happened, and though I understand, I still wrestle with the finality of death and what it means for the police officer, what it means for the family (of the shooter) and what it means for this community …We value life. That’s the thing that’s so hard.”

Horst says his congregation is feeling a mix of emotions.

For some, there’s a sense of relief that those in the congregation who worked in Excel were not physically injured.

But there are still uncertainties among survivors.

“‘I’m safe, I’m thankful and I thank God,’” Horst said. ‘“But how do I do that in the midst of knowing that there are other people who were killed?’”

Shalom justice

Faith leaders in Hesston are focusing now on letting the community grieve.

Anger is OK, says Michele Hershberger, Bible and ministry professor at Hesston College.

“What he did was wrong. But if we as a community can help each other forgive and respond in love to everyone, then in a tiny way we may be the hands and feet of Jesus.

“Somehow the Christians of Newton and Hesston did not have enough of a relationship with Cedric Ford that we were able to help him find an alternative to this tragedy. I’m not blaming anybody. But that’s how we want community to work.”

Some say, with the shooter’s death, justice has been served.

But Mennonites believe in shalom justice, concerned more with what people need, not necessarily what they deserve, Hershberger said.

“It’s too late for Cedric Ford, but how do we show shalom justice to his children and his family and to all of the families of the victims and to the Hesston cop who shot Ford?” she said.

In the coming weeks and months, the most important thing for the community is to not respond in fear, she said.

You create more angry people when you live in fear.

Michele Hershberger, Bible and ministry professor at Hesston College

“I think the most difficult thing to do is to continue to walk outside and greet everybody we know,” Hershberger said.

“If you live in fear, you live in a prison of your own making and we don’t want that in Hesston. You create more angry people when you live in fear. The best security we can have against armed angry men is to disarm them with our love.”

Contributing: Beccy Tanner of The Wichita Eagle

Hesston community church service

What: The Harvey County Community Service of Lament and Hope

When: 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: Hesston High School gymnasium, 200 N. Ridge

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