Bogue Chitto families lean on God, each other
Hours after vengeance destroyed lives in Bogue Chitto, grieving families held church.
“Bad things are going to happen but we still have to give it to God,” said Rev. Shon Blackwell, associate pastor at New Zion Union Missionary Baptist Church.
Blackwell’s son, Jordan, had been shot to death at their home earlier that morning — May 28, 2017 — while saving someone else. His nephew, 11-year-old Austin Edwards, died there, too.
They were two of eight people killed in a night of terror by a lone gunman. All but one — Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy William Durr — worshiped at New Zion.
The three who died along with Durr were 55-year-old Barbara Mitchell; her daughter, 35-year-old Tocarra May; and Mitchell’s younger sister, Brenda May, 53.
Before morning light, at a third home, 46-year-old Sheila Burage and her husband, 45-year-old Ferral Burage, would also be killed.
Their presence is still felt at New Zion.
Rev. Eugene Edwards, Jordan’s and Austin’s grandfather, said it was important to hold services that morning, even though he felt his heart torn apart.
“We were going to make sure that God got the glory anyway, and that’s all we’re doing now,” he said.
Blackwell said losing his son, his nephew and his cousins has made him praise God more.
“A year ago, I knew God was good, but now I know God is great,” he said.
The shared tragedy caused church members to lean on each other and depend on God more.
“It has affected all of us and it has shown us to lean on each other and depend on God while loving each other,” he said.
After the shootings, Blackwell questioned his faith.
“I wondered why God would allow certain things to happen to me,” he said. “He sent me back to the Word, where it says our work is not what qualifies us. Now I understand that regardless of who you are, tragedies still can happen. But in the midst of it all, you still got to love and then when you’re tired of loving, you just keep loving more.”
The church, though filled with memories of their missing loved ones, remains a place of comfort and healing.
“We’re all family,” he said. “We’re connected through blood and love. It’s like, I’m mourning, but other people are mourning, too.”
People like Cora Barze. Tocarra was her niece, her brother’s daughter.
Barbara was Tocarra’s mother. And Sheena Godbolt’s.
It is Sheena’s estranged husband who is accused of the largest mass shooting anyone can remember in Lincoln County.
Sheena still comes to New Zion sometimes. She was there Monday night, worshiping with those who feel her pain.
Barze said Barbara was a welcome sight at Sunday morning services.
“I miss her so much, seeing her at the door,” she said.
She misses them all.
Tocarra would take Barze to the doctor when her own daughter couldn’t do it. She loved her like she was her own.
“I watched Jordan and Austin grow up here,” she said.
And though Brenda had moved her membership to another church at the time of her death, she was still part of the New Zion family.
“We’re just missing them,” Barze said. “It has taken a toll on us. There’s not a day goes by that we don’t think about them or cry. It’s just so hard. We’re a small community. We’re very close. When one hurts the other one hurts. We grieve more every day because that’s our blood. It’s just like it just happened yesterday.”
She can look around the church and see them.
“We see where Barbara would sit, and Tocarra would sit next to her mom. Sheila, she worked with the kids. And Ferrel was at the door. And Austin and Jordan would be in the choir singing. So we are missing them and it’s hard,” she said. “We are trying to pull together as a family by leaning on each other. We cannot make it without leaning on each other.”
She knows it must be difficult for the Godbolts, who are also part of the community and the church.
“This family is all tied together,” she said. “Cory’s family, he was kin to a lot of them here in this church. But right is right and wrong is wrong. They know Cory did wrong. Anybody that says that he didn’t, they have a problem. I’m not going to worry about that because they have to deal with that with the Lord. They know Cory did wrong. We all know it.”
The violence shattered a lot of good memories.
“We will never get over that,” she said. “We pray about it and we ask the Lord for help because that’s the only thing that we can do. We’re hurting each and every day. Our loved ones are gone.”
Barze focuses on the good so she won’t forget things like how hard of a fighter Tocarra was. She’d gone through more than 20 surgeries in the 12 years since a motorcycle wreck ended the life of her fiancé and nearly killed her.
“She survived that only to lose her life,” Barze said.
Sheila was a giver.
“She was always trying to help somebody do something,” she said. “You could ask her for anything and if she could do it, she’d do it for you. And her husband as well.”
Jordan, her cousin, was a joker who kept them all laughing.
“He’d always do something silly,” she said.
She believed Austin would be a pastor like his grandfather and uncle.
“He would sit around and take in everything. He was a sweet person. Everybody loved him,” she said.
Barbara was on the choir staff and would be there in a heartbeat if anyone needed her. Brenda was the same.
“She would help you with anything and then tell you, if you tried to pay her, ‘No, you don’t owe me anything,’” Barze said.
The wounds in New Zion aren’t as fresh as they once were. Those who suffered greatly have healed some. Sunday, they’ll remember their loved ones where they gathered that morning a year ago when the loss was so fresh.
Edwards will be out of town, so Blackwell is stepping up to the pulpit.
His message: Don’t give up.
“When it seems like the odds are against you, never give up,” he said. “We’ve got to suffer, just like Jesus suffered.”
Amid all the suffering, there’s been great love.
“A lot of people have shown us how it feels to be loved,” he said.
The numbers are too many to name. For every tear they’ve shed, there’s been equal acts of kindness.
It’s helped them heal.
“We see now, through God, everything is possible,” he said.
Blackwell gets his strength from his wife, Tiffany, and sister-in-law Shayla Edwards. Others see the sisters’ strength as well, but Tiffany is quick to point out she’s not as strong as they think.
“They don’t see the drive to work. They don’t see when you’re home alone in the house,” she said. “If it wasn’t for God, family, friends and my job. If it wasn’t for those things. I don’t know how I would be able to make it one more day.”
Blackwell has his own dark moments, too, where he finds himself digging deep for forgiveness.
“My grandmama taught me that if you loved them once, and it was true love, you won’t stop loving them, but you’ll dislike what they’ve done,” he said. “And that’s what we do. We dislike people for what they’ve done, but we love them in general because God will take care of it.”
Edwards has forgiven the shooter, but believes he should face capital punishment.
“I’ve forgiven him, but he needs to pay for what he’s done,” he said.
The pastor doesn’t want to be around him, or have a conversation like nothing has happened.
“I’m not going to be mean around him, so I’d rather not be around him because he did something,” Edwards said. “Not only did he take our children, but he took himself out of his children’s lives while he was getting some vengeance.”
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