Shootings in Hesston, Kan., impact USMB congregations


One MB among the injured, another avoids carjacking

By Connie Faber with files from Mennonite World Review, Hesston Record, Wichita Eagle, The Guardian, KAKE TV and KWCH-TV  

A series of shootings Feb. 25 in Newton and Hesston, Kan., that left four dead and 14 injured and drew national attention to the Hesston community, hit close to home for Hesston MB Church, Koerner Heights MB Church, Newton, and Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan., as well as other USMB congregations in Central Kansas.  

The shootings culminated at Hesston’s Excel Industries, a lawn mower manufacturer that employs about 1,000 people. Following the shootings, a movement in the area to show support for Excel Industries prompted businesses and people, including Tabor College in Hillsboro, to park their Excel mowers in their front yards. 

Hesston, a city of 3,700, has a large Mennonite community; it is home to Hesston College—a two year Mennonite liberal arts college—three Mennonite Church USA congregations and Hesston MB Church. Excel, one of the biggest employers in the county, is Mennonite-owned.

When asked how people can pray specifically this week for those impacted by the shootings, Hesston MB Church pastor Brad Burkholder shares three requests in an email interview with the CL.

  • “Excel plans to reopen production this week. Please pray for the employees as they go back to work this week.
  • “Please pray for our church as we listen, encourage and support the families from Excel.
  • “I have seen an openness to the gospel and spiritual things at this time. This window of opportunity will not be there forever. May we speak words of peace, hope and love to our community. There are physical, emotional and mental wounds that need to heal. There are people still in the hospital. There are others that can’t sleep because they hear and see things when they close their eyes at night.”


Decker encounters Ford in Newton 

Cedric Ford, a worker at Excel Industries who lived in Newton, was served with a protection from abuse order earlier in the day while at Excel, and Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton believes this is what triggered the chain of events.

Edna Decker of Hesston MB Church was one of the first to encounter Ford. Around 4:45 p.m., Decker was driving her car in neighboring Newton when the vehicle directly in front of her and driven by the gunman came to a sudden stop, forcing Decker to slam on her brakes. Ford got out of his vehicle, and Decker could see he had an assault rifle. Decker estimates Ford came within about a foot of her window and motioned for her to leave the car. She shook her head.

“And I saw him lift the gun and the minute I saw him lift, my first instinct was (to lay) down across the console… I laid as flat as I could…and I could hear my ear pop as the gun went off,” Decker told KWCH-TV, the local CBS affiliate.

Decker was not injured, and when she slowly eased up, she saw that Ford had moved away from her car and that his attention was drawn to two other cars approaching from the opposite direction.

Decker quickly turned her car around and drove to a nearby residential street where she parked until she heard approaching police sirens. As Decker began driving back to where she had encountered Ford, “I was shaking so bad because I knew help was on the way, that I stopped and police saw that my car was shot.”

The day after her encounter with Ford, Decker told reporters: “I’m just so thankful to God. I owe my life to God. I think he’s the one that protected me, kept me safe…. I’m just praying for those that were hurt, and I know there are others that witnessed and are in the same shock that I am that weren’t hurt. We have a burden to carry.”


Miller evacuating building when he meets Ford

After his encounter with Decker, Ford shot two other drivers and stole the second driver’s car as he made his way to Hesston. When he reached Excel Industries, Ford opened fire in the parking lot, wounding one person. He then entered the building, opening fire.

Adam Miller, who attends Ebenfeld MB Church and works in the Excel weld shop, came face to face with Ford as Miller was urging fellow employees to evacuate the building. Miller reports that people were yelling “fire,” Excel’s code word for an active shooter. Miller says that at the time it didn’t register with him that this was a shooting and not a fire.

“I saw him (Ford) come around the corner and he looked kind of confused, so I told him that he needs to run and he just looked confused,” Miller said in a TV interview. “So I told him again and he said, ‘I know,’ and then he shot me. He did hesitate before he shot me. It’s like he recognized me.”

Miller was shot four times by his co-worker, a man Miller says was “always a very good guy to me.”

When asked by reporters how he felt about Ford, Miller held back tears. “My heart breaks for him,” Miller said in an TV interview the day after the shootings. “He was obviously in a lot of pain. I don’t know what he was going through. Obviously he felt this was the way out. And so my heart just aches for him.”

Miller and his family say they aren’t angry with Ford. “I pray for his (Ford’s) family,” Adam’s mother, Linda, told reporters. “How much pain they must be in. No ill feelings there, no.”  


Hesston police chief stops Ford

Hesston police chief Doug Schroeder was the first officer on the scene and was the lone officer who entered the Excel building. Schroeder confronted Ford and killed him a little before 5:30 p.m. when Ford returned fire.

Schroeder, a member of Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in neighboring Goessel, was praised for his actions.

“There were probably 200 more people in the building when this happened,” Sheriff Walton told reporters. “He was not going to stop shooting. He only stopped because that officer was there.”

Eventually more than 100 law-enforcement officers and emergency responders showed up and set up a makeshift triage unit. Excel employees helped one another to safety and provided aid to the injured.

Walton said that when Ford was served the protection from abuse order, he didn’t appear unusually upset, given the circumstances. Ford’s live-in girlfriend filed the order, accusing him of assault and being “an alcoholic, violent, depressed. It’s my belief he is in desperate need of medical and physical help,” The Wichita Eagle newspaper reported the women wrote in her petition.


Newton congregation cares for Hopkins

In addition to the assault rifle, Walton reports Ford was also carrying an automatic handgun. Ford, a convicted felon, was given the guns by Sarah Jo Hopkins, of Newton. Hopkins, who was arrested and appeared in federal court Feb. 29, was released on bond. Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for today, March 9.

Hopkins and her two young children are currently attending Koerner Heights MB Church (KHMBC), and Pastor Dave Froese was among the approximately 20 family members and friends present at her first court appearance.

Froese says Hopkins’ extended family, some of which attend KHMBC, were grateful for the judge’s compassion in releasing her on bond. Court documents report that Hopkins gave Ford the guns because he “threatened her.”

“Our church family wants to love on her,” says Froese in an interview with Christian Leader.  “We pray God will open the door for us to minister to her.”

Froese says Hopkins began attending KHMBC about four months ago as part of her desire to make changes in her life. She and her children regularly attended Sunday school and Wednesday night services and her extended family members were encouraged.

Froese was able to pray with Hopkins and have contact with her in the days following the shootings.


Community committed to justice, peace

Because Hesston is viewed as predominantly Mennonite and therefore as a place where violence is not condoned, some media outlets have asked how Mennonites respond to this tragedy.

Mennonites believe in shalom justice—concerned more with what people need and not what they deserve, Michelle Hershberger, Bible and ministry professor at Hesston College, told a Wichita Eagle reporter.

“It’s too late for Cedric Ford, but how do we show shalom justice to his children and his family and to all the families of the victims and to the Hesston cop who shot Ford?” she says.

The Hesston community’s commitment to love and reconciliation were evident at the Harvey County Community Service of Lament and Hope hosted by the Hesston Ministerial Alliance Feb. 29 in the high school gymnasium. Prayers were said and 14 candles were lit for each of the people wounded and four candles were lit for those who died, including the shooter.

Prayers were also offered for those individuals between Newton and Hesston who were affected by the shootings, the Excel employees, their spouses and children who were not injured but who experienced trauma, the law enforcement officers who arrived at the scene during the height of the chaos, the EMS workers and the Hesston middle school and elementary school and faculty and staff at Hesston College who experienced lock-downs at the schools.

The three Hesston MB Church pastors, Burkholder, Jared Redding and JL Martin, participated in the community service.

Burkholder says the Alliance is also helping to financially support the families impacted by the shooting. Sunday, March 6, Alliance members were invited by Excel to do a prayer walk through the manufacturing plant.

Hesston MB Church opened their building the day after the shooting for counseling provided by EMPAC, the employee assistance program offered by Excel and based in Wichita, Kan.  EMPAC was one of the agencies on the scene Thursday evening after the shooting and continued to provide individual and group counseling to Excel employees the following week.

When talking with a reporter, Burkholder said he continues to feel secure living in Hesston.

“I have a 21-year-old daughter,” Burkholder said, “and even when she was five years old I knew she could walk home from school and I wouldn’t worry about anything bad happening to her. For me that hasn’t changed.

“I refuse to be afraid,” he said. “I don’t want to be naïve, but at some level you have to trust people—and I trust the people of Hesston.”  


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