A New Year’s Eve service at North Carolina’s Heal the Land Outreach Ministries almost ended in tragedy. Thanks to the quick action of Fayetteville pastor—and city councilman—Larry Wright, disaster was thankfully averted.
At around 11:30 in the evening on New Year’s Eve, a man in his late 20s or early 30s entered the church during Wright’s sermon, brandishing a rifle and clip of ammunition. Seeing that the stranger was holding his gun in the air and fearing for the around-60 people in the sanctuary, Pastor Wright approached the man in a bid to defuse the situation.
“I’m the first person to see him and when I saw him, I thought it was a dummy gun—but then I saw the bullet clip in his hand, and the bullets were shining,” Wright told CNN.
Upon confronting the gunman, the pastor asked if he could help the man. A retired Army sergeant, Wright was prepared to tackle him if necessary. It never came to that.
“He said, ‘I came here with some terrible things on my mind. I was going to do some bad things’,” Wright told WNCN.
As church members became aware of the situation, panic followed. Some began screaming and bolting for the doors.
“I was very scared,” said church member Janice Johnson. “I had my granddaughter with me, and I just automatically grabbed her and braced her head so if any bullets would fly, I’d get the bullets and not my granddaughter.”
The gunman—a veteran who was recently released from prison—told Wright that he’d had negative experiences with the church but otherwise appeared to have been dissuaded from any act of violence. He instead asked for prayers and allowed Wright to take the gun away. A deacon and three others in the congregation came to join in the stunning scene, supporting the now-unarmed man in prayer.
“I told the congregation, ‘It’s okay, he wants prayer,’ and I began to pray for him,” Wright added. “And the power of God hit, and he fell to his knees and began to cry and weep, and he had his face on the ground.”
As if the sudden reversal weren’t remarkable enough, the man then listened to the rest of Wright’s sermon, apologized to those in attendance and professed his Christianity—all before police eventually led him away after the service.
“I finished the message, I did the altar call, and he stood right up, came up to the altar, and gave his life to Christ,” Wright recounted. “I came down and prayed with him, and we embraced. It was like a father embracing a son.”
For those who witnessed the event unfold, the man’s change of heart was no coincidence.
“God stepped in, and he moved on that young man’s heart, and instead of him shooting and killing a whole lot of people, God touched his heart,” Wright suggested.
The gunman apparently hasn’t been charged with any crime, but he was reportedly receiving treatment at a nearby facility. According to the Fayetteville Observer, he requested voluntary commitment at the Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.
Though Wright didn’t get the man’s name, he’s interested in reconnecting.
“I want to follow up with him and see that he’s getting the help and resources he needs,” Wright said.
Ironically, Wright’s sermon that evening touched on violence in churches around the country and deaths in the local community.
“It didn’t seem real, because it was like the scripture that our pastor was reading,” church member Allison Woods told CNN. “It was like it came off the page. It’s the next day, when you think of all that could have happened, what could have gone wrong. It sinks in how terrible it could have gone wrong.”
Wright has been a pastor at the church for 16 years.