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Winkler case tests church, pulls it closer

SELMER, TENN — “People have had a chance to put it in the back of their minds for a while,” Weekley said, referring to Matthew Winkler’s slaying. “Now it has to come to the forefront again. … For a while there, nobody really mentioned it. Now, it’s the talk of the town again.”
More than a year after the shooting, the Fourth Street church shows few external signs of change, members say.
What they have observed is less tangible — deeper, dearer relationships.
“They’re a tighter congregation,” Fourth Street elder James Turner said. “They’re much closer than they were before.”
One of three shepherds at the congregation, where attendance averages around 200, Turner was installed as elder the Sunday after
Matthew Winkler’s death.
“We’ve had such cooperation from the people in the congregation,” elder Wilburn Gene Ashe said. “We just all pulled together. … We’ve … been brought close together.”
Measurable indicators of the congregation’s health remain about the same since last spring, Ashe said.
Giving has stayed at normal levels, and attendance actually seems up, especially on Wednesday nights. The church did not lose any members after the minister’s death, Ashe added.
Stressing that she was expressing her own feelings, not speaking for the church, Fourth Street member Sharon Pinckley said she at times sensed “divided ideas” about the former minister and his wife.
“Who do we root for, Matthew’s family or Mary’s family?” she said.
Turner said the congregation’s leadership has tried to focus on forgiveness, not personal feelings members might have related to Mary Winkler, Matthew Winkler or anyone involved in the trial.
“I guess the biggest thing that we’ve tried to do is to keep the congregation together,” Turner said, noting that there had been several sermons on forgiveness.
Ashe added that the congregation had heard lessons on grief and loss as well.
“There’s been a lot of prayers,” he said.
A Bible class teacher at Fourth Street, Pinckley said the first- and second-graders often pray for Winkler and her three daughters.
“They name them — Brianna, Allie, Patricia,” said Pinckley, who once taught Allie and Patricia. “I know that the girls are definitely on the minds of the children, wanting to make sure that they’re safe.”
Since the killing, the Winkler children have been in the custody of their paternal grandparents, Dan and Diane Winkler, of Huntingdon, Tenn., some 70 miles north of Selmer. Dan Winkler preaches at the Huntingdon church.
“I think the church has been very quiet about what’s been going on,” Pinckley said.
She could recall no prayers on a “regular basis” for the Winklers and little public discussion of the tragedy, though she said that recently leaders had spoken more about the impending trial.
Weekley said he tried to help members see that, while they were individuals with unique responses to the tragedy, they were also, collectively, the church. Weekley began full-time work at the Selmer congregation last August. Fourth Street is the first full-time preaching position for Weekley, former dean of students at nearby Freed-Hardeman University.
“We’re going to grieve different ways,” Weekly said. “We need to rally around each other.”
Weekley’s relationship with Fourth Street goes back several years. While working at Freed-Hardeman, he had been a guest speaker at Fourth Street before Matthew Winkler became minister in early 2005. And the congregation turned to him to preach the first Sunday after Winkler was slain.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Weekly said. “What do you say?”
As the minister was pondering what he would tell the congregation, his brother-in-law offered some helpful spiritual advice.
“There are . . . literally thousands of people praying about this,” his brother-in-law said. “And God is not going to let you say something … inappropriate that’s going to hurt people; he’s going to give you words to say that will help them.”
On the pew that Sunday, Weekly recalled the encouraging words.
And while preparing a message for such painful circumstances, with the national spotlight on the congregation, was a burden, Weekley said, speaking hope to the church was not.
“It wasn’t difficult to preach those words of comfort,” he said. “The words were already there … from God.”
The church’s progress after the shattering loss does not mean the congregation fully comprehends what happened the Wednesday morning in March 2006 when Matthew Winkler died.
“The pieces just do not fit together,” said Fourth Street member Pam Killingsworth. “I think there’s some things that weren’t meant to be understood. And we’re just going to have to live with that fact and go on with our lives.
“At this point,” she added, “I’m ready just to give it to God, and let him take care of it.”

Filed under: Staff Reports Top Stories

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