Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

December 1, 2019


Tragic slaying of sheriff brings community together to pray


            A remarkable thing happened soon after the shocking killing of Lowndes County Sheriff John “Big John” Williams last Saturday night. Sunday afternoon more than a hundred people came together at the town square to pray. They prayed for Big John’s family and thanked God for the influence of their beloved sheriff.

That gathering tells us a lot about the people who live in Hayneville, Alabama, a small town just down the highway from Montgomery. That the people turned out to pray did not surprise me. There are some fine people in Hayneville, people who love one another and love their community. I met some of them when I had the opportunity to preach there in the Christian Methodist Church some years ago. I came away thinking, “These are good folks!”

Big John was one of those good folks. He grew up in Lowndes County. He spent most of his 62 years as a law enforcement officer, first as a Deputy Sheriff, and for the last ten years as the elected Sheriff. People loved Big John and he loved them. He lived to serve and protect the people, blacks and whites alike. What compounds the tragedy of his death is that John, an African American, was killed by a white teenager. According to news reports, Big John asked the young man why the music in his truck was so loud and the boy responded by shooting the Sheriff in the head, killing him.

The townspeople who prayed together were not only mourning Big John’s pointless death. They were remembering his kindness and his devotion to the people he served. They were recalling how often he made talks in schools and churches, seeking to inspire young people to live responsibly. Big John was not just a sheriff; he was from all accounts a sheriff beloved by the people who knew him. Hayneville residents were quoted as saying that the Sheriff loved their children and was “good to them.”

That they met at the town square to pray reminds us that we can bring our concerns before God anywhere, not just in a church building. When appalling things happen like the killing of Big John, we are not Methodists or Baptists or Catholics or Presbyterians or Assembly of God. We are not whites or blacks or Hispanics. We are just fellow human beings, people who are bewildered and hurt , people who need to stand together in a community that needs the help of almighty God.

I imagine there were prayers offered not only for Big John’s family but also for the family of the young man who shot and killed the sheriff. Imagine the grief being endured by the young man’s parents whose lives are now shattered because their son committed such a senseless crime. As the father of five sons, I know I would be completely devastated were I in that man’s shoes. I can only imagine the pain being felt by that young man’s father.

In recent years I have stood many times on the courthouse steps with people in my community who came together to pray for our nation. It always felt like a good thing to do – to get out of our churches and rub shoulders with people of all races and backgrounds while appealing to God for help needed by one and all. To gather and pray as a community is not a “last resort.” It is rather to put aside our differences and admit there are times when, in the face of bewildering tragedies, we need to stand together in the confusing search for solutions. It is to acknowledge that the help needed by our community or by our nation can come only from God.

The questions abound. Answers divide us. What are we to do about the senseless killing of people – especially children? If firearms do not kill, then what can we do to stop violent and sometimes mentally deranged people from using firearms to kill others. My answer, one answer, is to persuade people to know, love and serve Jesus Christ.

I have spent my entire life lifting up Christ as the answer to the problem of evil. People who are following Christ normally value human life and find peaceful solutions to their problems. The more we know about Jesus, the more we see the wisdom of living by the principles he advocated. If this is true, then is it not a national tragedy that our nation has turned more and more away from teaching our children to have faith in Jesus Christ?

I raise this question not for the sake of argument. God knows we have enough arguments going on already. I raise it simply as one concerned citizen who is willing to listen to any solutions others may offer in the hope that, together, God helping us, we may find our way out of this maddening darkness. Perhaps the one prayer that should always be prayed when we come together as a community in sorrow and confusion is this: Lord, have mercy on us all. Forgive us for continuing to kill one another. Help us find a way to stop this insanity. + + +