After shooting, church opens its doors for healing time
By Denise DuBois
On March 7, the town of Hurtsboro was devastated when Walter Frank Thomas, known by the townspeople as “Waddy,” walked into the City Grill just after 5 a.m. and opened fire with his .22 rifle. He shot and killed restaurant owner Donald Wayne Hughes and shot Roy Donald Johnson, John William Hardin, and John Carroll Williams. Williams died Saturday at the hospital.
“It’s where the little old men go every single morning and some of the ladies,” said Donna Moss Wednesday morning, just hours after the shooting. “They go there every morning and catch up on the news of the day then go back at lunch in case anything happened between breakfast and lunch that they can catch up on.”
The City Grill was the place to be every morning. From 5 a.m., there was always someone there to talk to. And Wednesday mornings were designated as “Meet and Greet” days at 9 a.m. It was a chance for everyone in the city of just more than 400 to come out and say “Hello.”
“To me this is really hard because it’s the gathering spot for everyone,” Moss said. “I’ve always said this, and it’s gonna sound funny and sarcastic at the same time, but if all the little old men who sit at that round table could solve the world’s problems like they think they could, the world would be a much better place. Because every one of them has an idea on how to solve it.”
It didn’t take long for a solution to arise. Keith Turner, an Air Force veteran and chaplain who has been the pastor of Hurtsboro United Methodist Church for 12 years, decided to open the doors of the church Thursday morning for breakfast.
“Our whole community is hurting and this is healing,” he said. The premise was to get them here for breakfast. If they came for breakfast, they would talk to one another. In the Air Force, when you had a critical incident, you always did a debrief. This is their debrief. I think it’s helping tremendously.”
The fellowship hall was full Thursday morning and even more community members showed up Friday morning. There were people who simply came in with food to share. Some came to cook and serve. Some laughed. Some talked about how they were feeling. Everyone was kind.
“This community is the closest thing to family you’ll find. We have our differences and our diversities, but when it’s all said and done, we’re still a community. We want healing. That is the biggest thing when there is a tragedy. There are evil forces in this world, so bad things happen. It’s not God’s will, but good things will happen from it,” Turner said.
Emila Easley, or “Em,” as friends call her, was in the City Grill that Wednesday morning. She remembers seeing Thomas enter the restaurant and hearing the gun shots. She remembers hitting the floor because that’s what her pastor taught her to do in case of a shooting at the church, similar to the one in Texas. She’s thankful it was only a .22 rifle and that he ran out of bullets.
“We may not be having this conversation otherwise,” she said.
Em has lived in Hurtsboro for more than 30 years. She moved to the city for her husband’s job but she stayed because of the community she found.
“Most of the people in town, you know, being so small, you know them already. They just all pull together and surround you with their love. If you’re sick, all of a sudden someone shows up at your door with a pot of soup. It’s wonderful,” she said. “The good far outweighs the bad.”
Em has been visiting the City Grill for years. She is usually the only woman there that early in the morning. She recalled conversations they would have at the round table. Tales of cattle, auctions, air planes and the beach.
This time, she sat in the church reminiscing. She hasn’t yet had her crying time, but said it will hit her when she’s alone and quiet.
She remembers the tornado that hit in 1981.
“The town was hit hard. We all pulled together and survived and came back strong. So we will with this too.”
Her daughter Elisabeth Bernier lives in Birmingham but drove to Hurtsboro as soon as she heard the news.
“I work in the medical field. I know the VA is understaffed and underfinanced, but this gentleman fell through the cracks,” she said.
Thomas is a Vietnam veteran. The people in the community knew him to have mental health issues and suffered from drug use. Some even worried that an event like this would happen one day, but it’s never something you can predict, they said.
Thomas was arrested at his home and was charged with murder and three counts of attempted murder. The funeral for Hughes was Friday morning and the funeral for Williams will be later this week.
Read more on this story next week.