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Pennsylvania shooting victim had strong faith

Heidi Overmier worked with children at First United Methodist Church in Bridgeville, Pa. A UMNS photo courtesy of Bridgeville First United Methodist Church.

By Jackie Campbell*
August 6, 2009 | BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. (UMNS)

Faith was a huge part of the life of Heidi Overmier, one of three women murdered in a shooting rampage in this Pittsburgh suburb.

Overmier, 46, wrote and directed the children’s Christmas plays and was a mainstay of the youth ministries at First United Methodist Church.

“She was one of the most amazing people. She just gave and gave and gave. She came to Bible school every night last week just to help out, even though her son was out of town,” said her friend Virginia Basile. “She took pictures of every single child and made frames to put them in so everyone would get one.”

As she spoke, Basile was putting together a slideshow celebrating her friend’s life. Like others in the community, she was both mourning the tragic loss of life and seeking to be a healing presence in the wake of the Aug. 4 shootings at a health club a few miles from the church.

Overmier was one of two United Methodists killed by George Sodini, a 48-year-old law firm systems analyst who police say carried out a plan to randomly kill women at his gym and then take his own life. Sodini wrote about his plan on a blog, where he told of feeling isolated, rejected and angry with women. Nine other women in an exercise class at L.A. Fitness were wounded in the barrage of bullets before he turned the third of four handguns carried in a duffel bag on himself.

Another of the victims, Jody Billingsley, 37, was a member of Sugarcreek United Methodist Church, about two hours north of Pittsburgh. A physical therapist and former basketball player for the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, she lived in the Pittsburgh area for several years and traveled around the country selling and demonstrating medical equipment.

Prayer service planned

Heidi Overmier

Pittsburgh Area Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton will be among those attending a prayer service at the L.A. Fitness Club on Aug. 7. The Rev. Josephine Whitely-Fields, First United Methodist pastor, and the Rev. Jonathan Fehl, pastor of the Bridgeville campus of Crossroads United Methodist Church, also will participate in the service being arranged by local clergy.

In a statement, Bickerton called for prayer.

“Pray for Heidi Overmier and Jody Billingsley and their families. Pray for the congregations at Bridgeville and Sugarcreek who will be ministering to them. Pray for the Revs. John King and Josephine Whitely-Fields as they minister to their people. Pray for the family and friends of (shooting victim) Elizabeth Gannon, for those who were hospitalized, and the scores of others who have been traumatized by this tragedy. Pray for George Sodini’s family and friends as they deal with the inevitable confusion and humiliation they feel,” Bickerton said.

A funeral service for Overmier is planned for Aug. 8, the day she was to attend a friend’s wedding.

“A bunch of us were going,” Basile said. “Heidi was so excited and so happy for them.”

Overmier was remembered as a woman devoted to God and her 16-year-old son, Ian, a member of the Washington District Youth Council.

“Faith was a huge part of her life and his also,” said the Rev. Ed Saxman, pastor of the church until June 1. “If she was in town, she was in church and so was he. There was no question.”

Everyone at the church looked forward to the children’s Christmas plays she wrote and directed, said Whitely-Fields, the current pastor who will lead the funeral service.

Rock of faith

The tragedy is difficult to understand, church leaders said, but faith can help people heal.

“We sit on the rock of a faith. We believe that even death cannot separate us from the love God has for us. Jesus himself promised to go and prepare a place for us – a place where there is no fear of random shooting and violent death,” Bickerton said. “Today, we kneel in prayer, believing that our petitions are not made aimlessly into the clouds, but fully registered in the loving presence of a God who can do all things to strengthen and restore broken lives.”

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Saxman said the shooting rampage “clarifies just how important the church is in our society. It’s up to us to see that things like this don’t happen – to see the George Sodinis of the world and reach out to them with the message of love and hope.

“They are all children of God, and if we can see God in every person, then they begin to value themselves. If some way the miracle of God’s presence allows love to come through, that prohibits these kinds of things from happening,” he said. 

*Campbell is a communications director for the Western Pennsylvania Conference.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference

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First United Methodist Church, Bridgeville

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