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Pastors provide spiritual comfort during hostage crisis

9/19/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Report By Cathy Farmer*

During the harrowing hours of a hostage crisis in Dyersburg, Tenn., United Methodist pastors were in ministry in the thick of the conflict - to the police chief, the family of the hostage-taker and one of the shooting victims.

United Methodist pastor Earl Dickerson Jr. stood by Bobby Williamson, Dyersburg police chief and lay leader of East Dyersburg United Methodist Church, during the Sept. 17 hostage crisis at Dyersburg State Community College.

United Methodist pastor Daniel Tilly spent the tense hours of the nine-hour stand-off with the family of John Johnson, one of the students shot when the police Special Response Team rushed into the Eller Administration Building classroom to rescue the remaining hostages.

United Methodist pastor Russell Morrow Sr., said God gave him the assignment that night to stay with the mother and family of hostage-taker Harold Kilpatrick Jr., 26.

"Harold and Theresa Johnson, the parents of John Johnson, joined Center United Methodist Church last Sunday," said Tilly, pastor of the Center-Rehoboth Charge. "They moved to Dyersburg because Harold is the new assistant football coach at Dyer County High School."

Harold and Theresa's son, John, and his wife, Jennifer, were among the 14 students held hostage when Kilpatrick rushed into their math class wielding a semi-automatic pistol and a butcher knife.

"Kilpatrick let Jennifer leave the room when she told him she needed to go to the restroom," Tilly said. "He told her to come back in 15 minutes or he'd start shooting the other hostages. But the police grabbed her and didn't let her return."

Tilly said Jennifer told him Kilpatrick was using her as a human shield to protect himself from police bullets.

"I prayed with the family all afternoon," Tilly said. "Kilpatrick seemed to calm down so we really thought there was going to be a peaceful ending. But as soon as I went home, it exploded. I rushed back (John had been shot in the leg and abdomen) and met the parents at the emergency room. We spent hours in prayer."

Kilpatrick held the classroom captive for nine hours before a Special Response Team moved in to rescue the students, killing him in the process. Kilpatrick had a history of mental problems and had not been taking his prescribed medication, according to news reports.

Earl Dickerson, pastor of East Dyersburg United Methodist Church and a police chaplain, said Chief of Police Bobby Williamson had to make the decision to send in the Special Response Team.

"When shots are fired, you go in shooting to save the hostages," Dickerson said. "I was praying with the chief. He didn't want to do it, both for the sake of the hostage-taker and for the sake of the officers. Statistics show that when an officer has to kill someone, within five years, if they don't receive professional intervention, 85 percent are no longer on the force."

Williamson, East Dyersburg Church's lay leader, has always been greatly concerned for the emotional and spiritual health of his officers.

Dickerson said Kilpatrick was only the second civilian to be killed by police while Williamson has been chief. "And he's the longest-serving police chief in Tennessee.
Nobody wanted that shot fired.

"I spent a half-hour with Bobby after it was all over, loving on him," Dickerson said. "I reminded him that we were all praying for him and love him."

Russell Morrow, pastor of the Ross-Hughlett Charge in Dyersburg, stayed with Kilpatrick's mother, family and friends. "God gave me that assignment," the police chaplain said.

"When his mother was told he was dead, she began to wail from deep within," Morrow said. "It was a really painful moment, that moan coming from deep down in her belly. They had to sedate her. When the nurse was getting ready to start the IV, she told her it would hurt, but his mother said, 'This pain is nothing compared to the loss of my child.'"

Morrow, Dickerson and Tilly - three United Methodist pastors, three grieving families, one faith.

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*Farmer is director of communications for the Memphis Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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