CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (July 29, 2015) -- When the family of U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. David Wyatt needed a pastor and a church to bury their loved one, they turned to the place where their children had played Upward Basketball.
Wyatt, age 35, was one of five killed by a shooter attacking military facilities in Chattanooga on July 16. Hixson United Methodist Church hosted Wyatt’s high-profile funeral on Friday, July 24, welcoming 800 into the sanctuary while inviting thousands of others to view the 10-mile funeral procession along city streets.
“This was the church being the church, because these folks were essentially strangers to us,” said the Rev. Reed Shell, senior pastor. “We were very honored that they remembered us in their time of need.”
The family had lived in Chattanooga about two years when Wyatt and others were gunned down at a Navy and Marine recruitment center. When Hixson UMC was contacted and Shell visited the family, he learned they lived within two miles of the church. The children had played in the church basketball league.
Heith Wyatt is 7. Rebecca Wyatt celebrated her 10th birthday one day after her father’s funeral.
“They were so overwhelmed,” Shell said of his first visit to the family, including the widow, Lorri Wyatt. “They wanted a church service, but everything was so tentative because we weren’t sure when the body would be released.”
The church staff began to make plans while waiting for federal investigators to return Wyatt’s body from Dover, Delaware. Jim Lewis, director of Christian formation and family ministry – and also a firefighter chaplain – began to set up teams for what he knew would be a nationally visible and complicated event.
“The family was grieving, and they were our first priority,” Lewis said. “But we were also serving our city, Chattanooga, and Chattanooga needed to grieve.”
On Tuesday, July 21, the church received confirmation the funeral would be held on Friday, making Wyatt the first of the five servicemen to be laid to rest.
The church worked with county and city leaders on a press release asking the public to reserve seats and parking for the family, military and dignitaries -- while inviting them to “show support and solidarity” by lining the streets between the church and Chattanooga National Cemetery.
About 120 volunteers from Hixson United Methodist Church, including a van-shuttle team from nearby Burks United Methodist Church, assembled to provide hospitality, technology, security, child care, and assistance for the military, police and media, Lewis said. Local businesses and organizations provided food, bottled water and other supplies and services.
On the day of the funeral, volunteers arrived at the church at 9 a.m., knowing the church would be “locked down” for security purposes until 3 p.m., Lewis said.
When the funeral started at 1 p.m., thousands of people waving flags and holding signs – in addition to police and media -- waited outside the church and along the procession route in the July heat. About 800 filled the sanctuary, leaving some 400 open seats in the “overflow” area, Shell said.
“We didn’t have as many people inside the church as we had thought,” said Gray Ramsey, a member of Hixson UMC and a U.S. Marine veteran of Mike Battery, Wyatt’s unit. “Mainly family and friends and the Marines currently in Mike Battery … There were commanding generals in attendance as well as other military, law-enforcement and political dignitaries.”
In his message, Shell referred to 1 and 2 Samuel in the Old Testament. He said King David knew about military strategy and he knew how to be in battle, “but he also knew how to grieve. He grieved the loss of his friend Jonathan.”
The community’s response to the loss of Wyatt and four others had been “so magnificent,” Shell told mourners. “We’re facing the temptation to follow hate and fear or to follow the God of love. The real test for us is how we’ll go on from here.”
Wyatt’s commanding officer, fellow staff sergeant, and four siblings also spoke during the service, Shell said.
Church volunteers cared for the children of Wyatt’s 150 family and friends throughout the day and served them all dinner after the burial service. The congregation, which has about 600 in average worship attendance, will continue to reach out to the family in the weeks and months ahead, Shell said.
“We had the ability to set the tone for the whole city on this day with our entire demeanor, with the ministry of presence,” Lewis said. “The funeral was in some ways the least stressful day because of the way everyone was stepping up.”
“There was laughter as well as tears for sure,” said Ramsey. “I know how caring and giving our church family is, and the outpouring of love from our church in this time was unforgettable.”
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Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.