It was Sunday morning at the Keystone Fellowship Church near Philadelphia. The service was in full swing. Congregants sang hymns. And then came the shooting.
One church member shot another after an altercation that escalated into gunfire, according to the Montgomery County, Pa., District Attorney’s Office.
“We understand that there was a disturbance in the church and then there was an altercation between these two people,” District Attorney Kevin Steele told reporters.
“Our hearts are deeply grieved over the tragic event that occurred Sunday morning,” the church said in a statement. “As a church family, we are shocked and heartbroken over what took place, and our congregation is in prayer for everyone involved.”
Robert Braxton, 27, was shot in the chest during the service at the church’s Montgomeryville campus, the Associated Press reported. He died about 30 minutes after police responded to the shooting.
The gunman, who was treated at a hospital and then released, has been interviewed and is cooperating with investigators, Kate Delano, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, told The Washington Post. No charges have been filed yet in the case, she said.
Investigators were trying to “determine if the shooting was justified under the law,” Steele said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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Hundreds of people were inside the Southern Baptist church during the shooting, so there are “a lot of witnesses” to interview, Delano said, adding: “At this point, we’re still investigating.”
Congregants described the terrifying atmosphere as gunfire erupted inside the church. Breeana Somers told NBC 10 that “it sounded like three pops, almost like a champagne bottle opening three times.”
But those inside for the service knew something was amiss, she said.
“Everybody’s trying to make themselves as small as possible,” Somers told the station. “You could hear some screaming and some crying, but it was pretty silent.”
She continued: “I went under a chair in a fetal position. I tried to make myself as small as possible. It’s really frightening that anything like this could happen here.”
The church in Montgomery Township doesn’t have pews; the shooting took place in an open area between rows of chairs, Delano said.
Steele told reporters that the shooter had a concealed-carry license, and Braxton was hit by at least one shot from a semiautomatic handgun, the Inquirer reported.
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There have been at least 1198 “deadly force” incidents and 626 violent deaths in U.S. houses of worship since 1999, according to Carl Chinn, who runs what is considered to be the most extensive database on such violence.
Chinn’s statistics, compiled by searching Google for news, show that “more deadly force incidents have occurred in Baptist churches during that timeframe than in churches of any other denomination,” according to Baptist Press.
On Monday night, Keystone Fellowship held a vigil at its Skippack campus, some 13 miles from the Montgomeryville church, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The church invited the public to join “as we approach God’s throne of grace and seek His healing presence in our time of need,” and hundreds attended, according to Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptists Convention.
“As the service began, and people continued to slowly file in from the parking lot and an overflow field across the street, the sound of quiet singing spilled out of the open doors,” the Inquirer reported. “Church members stood at the entrances, greeting each member with a hug or handshake.”
In a letter sent to the congregation Monday, pastor John Cope said “my heart is deeply burdened for the two families whose lives were changed in an instant, and for our church family individually and collectively as we grapple with the shock and pain of it all.”
“We need healing,” Cope wrote, according to Baptist Press. “We need the peace and comfort of God like never before.”
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In his letter, Baptist Press reported, Cope said “that even though I am deeply saddened, I am also hopeful.”
He added: “We serve a God who brings good out of the most tragic of circumstances, and I believe that we have an opportunity to unite as the body of Christ and overcome evil with good. Keystone has always been a church that loves God and loves people, not only with our words but with our actions.”