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Maryland church responds to family shooting

Tamara and John Browning are shown with their children Nicholas (top right), Benjamin (left) and Gregory in this undated photo. Nicholas, 15, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of his family at their home in Cockeysville, Md., on Feb. 1.
A UMNS Web-only photo courtesy of the Browning family.

By Melissa Lauber*
Feb. 11, 2008 | BALTIMORE (UMNS)

Epworth United Methodist Church in Cockeysville, Md., is helping
members and the community
respond to the murders. A UMNS
Web-only photo courtesy of Epworth United Methodist Church.

How does a church respond when four of its members are murdered and the teenager who created its prayer garden stands accused of killing them?

It’s a surreal question, said the Rev. Bill Brown. But faced with that reality, the congregation of Epworth United Methodist Church in Cockeysville, Md., is replying––in both words and actions––that "God cares, God is present."

According to news reports, Nicholas Browning, 15, argued with, then shot and killed his father, John Browning, 45, on Feb. 1. Nicholas then allegedly used the gun to kill his mother, Tamara, 44; and brothers, Gregory, 13 and Benjamin, 11, who were asleep in their beds.

The Brownings were active members of the Epworth congregation in their suburban Baltimore town. Nicholas was a Boy Scout and honor student and was well liked in the community. His father was a partner in a law firm in Towson and was a leader in his sons’ Scout troop. His mother was a homemaker who did part-time property management work.

At their colonial, suburban home, neighbors have placed stuffed animals and candles on the wraparound porch. In formal and impromptu vigils in the community and at schools, people describe the Brownings as "a picture perfect" family.

No one at the church had any inkling that anything like this would ever happen, Brown said. He is observing people running through "the whole gamut of emotions––sadness, anger, disbelief and even laughter as people share stories and remember a family whose lives made an incredible difference."

Amid the sorrow is an underlying question: Why?

"It’s a question we’re all asking," Brown said. "But in the midst of not knowing why, God is with us."

Brown sees God’s presence "in the way people in the community are reaching out to one another, in the way people are treating one another, crying with one another, holding hands together. That’s where God is at work," he said.

After the killings, the church opened its doors as a gathering place for teens to pray and talk.

Opportunity amid tragedy

Bishop John R. Schol of the Washington Area said he mourns for all affected by the violence.

"When tragedies like this occur, the church is faced with its greatest opportunity to be the body of Christ. I am grateful for the ministry of Pastor Bill Brown and the Epworth congregation who are demonstrating the love, hope and peace of Jesus Christ," the bishop said.

"Compassion is the key word. Everyone in this situation is a child of God."
–The Rev. Bill Brown

"Violence can make us feel that the strength of God is slipping into the darkness of this world, but it is the care and ministry of the church and pastors during this time that is a witness that the power of love and the commitment of those who stand in the light … shines more brightly than the shadows of pain and tragedy," Schol said.

At a memorial service Feb. 8, more than 1,200 gathered at nearby Trinity Assembly of God, which opened its doors for the service. They came together to grieve and to share their memories of the Browning family.

"I cried Monday, I cried Tuesday, I cried Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," said a girl. "I don’t think I have any more tears. I just wish now that I could sleep at night."

But the tears did come for many in the sanctuary as four wooden boxes containing the Brownings’ ashes were brought in, followed by a procession of the Boy Scouts and leaders of Troop 328 and three pastors robed in white.

Many cried when photos of the family on ski trips and celebrating holidays flashed on two large screens. Parents in the congregation held their children tighter when two friends of Greg Browning choked up as they described their friend.

"Never in my life did I think I could have encountered someone I could completely be myself around," said James Schmelz, his voice breaking. "But I did, and that was Greg."

Family members and friends spoke about each of the four Brownings. John was remembered as a navigator, who knew how to help people find their way in life. Tammy was described as "the cool mom," who boogie-boarded in the ocean waves and skied with her children at their mountain vacation home. The couple would have celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this year.

A child of God

Nicholas Browning, who turned 16 the day of the service, is being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center without bail.

Although Nicholas’ name was never mentioned by friends and relatives at the memorial service, Brown said he has forgiven the boy because it is in keeping with his faith in a God of forgiveness. He invited those present to search their hearts, reach out to God and to think about forgiveness.

As Nicholas Browning’s pastor, Brown has visited and prayed with him. "Compassion is the key word. Everyone in this situation is a child of God," he said.

The Rev. Bill Brown

In his message of hope, Brown quoted Zephaniah 3:17, a verse sent to him in an e-mail by a local school teacher following the shootings.

The Lord "will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing," the Scripture says. Sometimes it is a song of celebration, other times it’s a lullaby, said Brown. "Today it is a song of comfort."

Brown asked the congregation and community to draw upon the tools God gives them as they move through this tragedy – tools of memory, love, faith and forgiveness.

Holding each other up

At times during the week that followed the shooting, Brown said, he found himself thinking about how Nicholas created a prayer garden at the church for his Eagle Scout project.

"He was excited about providing a place of prayerful meditation," Brown said.

That garden has taken on a new significance in some people’s minds, and the congregation is considering planting trees around it in the future. For Brown, it is a reminder that "prayer connects us to a God who loves us and cares for us when we walk through the dark valleys of life and in times of joy."

He hopes those in the congregation will "continue to hold each other up."

"There are some things in life that we’re never going to understand," he said. "But there is a God who cares for us. None of us are going through this alone."

*Lauber is associate editor of the UMConnection newspaper in the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

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

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