On Wednesday, September 13, Caleb Sharpe walked into Freeman High School in Spokane Valley, Washington, pulled a gun from his duffel bag, and started shooting. He killed one classmate and wounded three others.
Just 25 minutes north of the school, the church staff at Valley Real Life started getting frantic fragments of information.
“We started getting texts and phone calls about 10:45,” said Pastor Dan Shields. “It had been about 10 minutes after the shooting began—and well before any news agency got word of what was going on.”
The church has students who attend Freeman High School and other schools in the district, which were also locked down. Between kids and parents, there was a lot of conflicting information coming to staff. At the time Dan was at a conference an hour away, and to a pastor dealing with a crisis, the distance felt like forever. But the way Valley Real Life responded—without having developed a plan for tragedy in advance—now offers a powerful roadmap for churches everywhere.
Organizing the chaos
“The first thing you do is confirm what you’re hearing,” Dan said. “At the same time, you assemble people and staff to pray. In the first 30 minutes, you’re just trying to gather information and gather people together to pray.”
"In the first 30 minutes, you’re just trying to gather information and gather people together to pray.”
But in a 2,000-member church, every staff person has different relationships and connections to the community. There were too many separate conversations happening in too many places.
“I would tell any other church that goes through something like this that it’s key to immediately identify: ‘Who is your point person that communication goes through?’” Dan says. “That was one of the best things that we did. Every time somebody got a text message, it went to our point person as well.”
It was one of the biggest steps Valley Real Life took to make sure they weren’t spreading misinformation.
“Not that everybody isn’t communicating,” Dan said, “but a lot of the mistakes churches make is that they start posting or texting: ‘Here’s what I know.’ There’s so much different information that it gets confusing and overwhelming.”
When a community is in crisis, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of separate games of telephone happening all at once.
“I was getting text messages and people were saying, ‘THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED.’ And it wasn’t anything like what happened. Or they’d say ‘This is how many people passed away.’ And it wasn’t true information.”
But it wasn’t enough just to make sure everybody was on the same page about the information that was coming in. People needed to know what to do with that information too.
“The point person for communication can’t be the person on your staff or team that’s going to go running to the hospital and different places. You need a central place of communication so that everybody knows where they’re supposed to go.”
"You need a central place of communication so that everybody knows where they’re supposed to go.”
For Valley Real Life, all communications filtered through their executive admin.
“We told all staff ‘Whenever you get any update or information, obviously respond to that person, pray for that person, but please pass that information on to her,’” Dan said.
It took about an hour to confirm exactly what happened and what was being done about it. By that time, there was a new obstacle.
“Everybody is going to want to help now that we know what’s going on,” Dan said. “Now that the immediate crisis is over and the aftermath is beginning, people are going to want to help. They’re going to want to gather, love, pray. And in a church our size, everybody has a million suggestions. People are already getting in their cars. We had pastors in their cars on their way to the school, not realizing that they’d closed the roads already. We immediately assigned one of our staff to be the point for care. Then they could coordinate with our communications person from a care standpoint.”
From that point on, staff members were able to distribute accurate information through social media, email, and text. People still wanted to know, “What do we do?” There was an overwhelming number of suggestions, but for Dan the answer was simple.
“When it comes to care, we’re trying to meet people where they’re at. You don’t ask what they need in the midst of crisis. Just show up.”
“You don’t ask what they need in the midst of crisis. Just show up.”
And when Valley Real Life found out who was affected, it wasn’t the pastors who reached out first; it was small group leaders—the people who had the best relationships with them.
Mourning in public
As the day went on, people wanted to know, “What are we doing as a church?”
“Our people wanted a place where they could come,” Dan said. “Our point person started organizing an evening service, a prayer vigil. This went out through our staff on Facebook and email, and then the media got word of it, which is good and bad.”
As the media shared how the community was responding, word about the prayer vigil quickly spread.
“Intentionally or not, they started to advertise that we were holding a gathering—which would become the largest gathering for this tragedy.”
Now Valley Real Life had another decision to make—who should talk to the media? The staff knew that an open mic is a dangerous invitation to walk into trouble.
“What we don’t want is for the focus to be taken away from the families,” Dan says. “We know the media is looking for soundbites.”
“What we don’t want is for the focus to be taken away from the families,” Dan says.
So they appointed a single person who would talk to the media and communicate the church’s only message.
“It was amazing,” Dan said, “because reporters would be at the hospital and they’d say to our pastors, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you about this event,’ and our pastors would say, ‘We’d love to talk to you about it. You can talk to this person.’ So the message our church communicated publicly was always the same.”
About 500 people showed up for the impromptu service that night, where they prayed and sang and talked. The news carried the event live.
“All the while, we’re having to be careful because we know that these guys are fishing,” Dan said. “They’re here for stories. We’re trying to make sure we’re respectful of the media but we’re trying to respect the families that are hurting at the same time.”
But while the media might’ve intimidated staff, they couldn’t stifle the Holy Spirit.
“The weight that you felt in that gathering on Wednesday night was palpable,” Dan said. “I had a hard time starting the service. You could feel the heaviness. But after we prayed, sang, and talked, and did that a few more times, you could sense the Spirit’s leading and power that was taking place. The pain didn’t go away at the end of the night, but what happened was that you came in feeling pain, loss, and despair, and you left feeling hopeful, encouraged, and a sense of peace that surpasses understanding—that only takes place when God’s people come together to lift up his name. He revealed himself in a very tangible way that’s still encouraging us today.”
“Why did God let this happen?”
Inevitably, in every tragedy people are bound to ask how a loving, all-powerful God could let this happen. How could Christians worship a God who allows this?
Staff and members of Valley Real Life faced these questions constantly as they prayed alongside people. And they felt pressured to answer. When they asked Dan how to respond, his answer was simple: “Don’t.”
“There will be a time to respond,” he said. “But any time people are asking that in the midst of pain and tragedy, they’re asking that out of emotion. No answer—even if it’s the right answer—is going to meet that emotional need. It will only infuriate people. Because most of the time you’re giving a head response to a heart issue.”
These are questions people have been asking for thousands of years—even Job and his friends expressed similar sentiments. People can wait to tackle those questions until it is an appropriate time to have the conversation.
“Our God is big enough that he can handle the criticism,” Dan says. “And we should be able to as well. Let’s just model love."
“Our God is big enough that he can handle the criticism,” Dan says. “And we should be able to as well. Let’s just model love. Weeks from now if people are still asking those questions, we can sit down and talk about free will and God’s sovereignty and who’s in control. But that’s not what people need right now, and it will do more harm than good.”
Instead, there were three things God called Valley Real Life to focus on: “Jesus wants us to pray. Jesus wants us to mourn. And Jesus wants us to love.”
Now, more than ever before, the community was open to prayer. “In a time like this, we need to invite other people to pray,” said Dan.
And as the community grieved, the church modeled mourning too. “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ Now is the time for mourning. So we told our church, ‘You need to be with other people and mourn with them as we ourselves are mourning.’”
Just like in the middle of the crisis, people can be paralyzed by too many ways to help. The staff at Valley Real Life offered a simple definition of love:
“The best thing to do is just sit and be with people. Provide meals when there are meal opportunities. Encourage them when they need encouragement. Just find ways to love.”
For the schools of Spokane Valley, one of those ways was snacks.
“In the middle of the shooting they locked down not only Freeman High School, but the entire district for two and a half hours. In the elementary schools, they ran through about a month’s worth of snacks. This week we decided to meet that need.”
How God is showing up
Through the prayer, mourning, and love they’ve poured out, God has opened doors for Valley Real Life to witness his glory in the storm of tragedy.
“When the kids went back to school, our youth pastor was the first person to speak to youth and parents,” Dan explained. “And as he would say, ‘He broke all the laws.’ He prayed. He talked about Jesus. He talked about living by faith and not fear—because that’s going to be the temptation going back into those hallways.”
But to Dan, God didn’t just show up in the aftermath. He was there even during the terror.
But to Dan, God didn’t just show up in the aftermath. He was there even during the terror.
“The event itself had a miracle,” he said. “The original gun that he came in with was a semi-automatic assault rifle, and it jammed. He didn’t even have a chance to get that off. His backup was a .22 caliber pistol, which is one of the smallest bullets you can shoot with. And even that one jammed after about eight or nine bullets.”
The damage this teenage boy inflicted was horrific and permanent, but his plan was far worse. And as the community grieves and people ask questions and experience doubt, God is making himself known, even now.
“When tragedy happens, the community comes together,” Dan says. “The closer you are to the tragedy, the closer the community comes together. And God has been at the center of almost all of the gatherings.”
How you can pray for Spokane Valley
“Pray for the people most affected by this,” Dan said. “We’re praying specifically for the emotional trauma of those whose physical injuries will heal.”
Valley Real Life is also praying that God will continue to do more of the same: “We’re praying that God would use this to draw people to himself.”
When you are mourning, it is hard to hear someone quote Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him." Scripture is not a bandage—it is truth. And sometimes that truth is sharper than a double-edged sword—which means we need to handle it delicately.
Through prayer, mourning, and love, Pastor Dan Shields and the staff at Valley Real Life hope to bring more people into God’s Kingdom.
“The two greatest opportunities that people have to know Jesus are unfortunately through transition and through tragedy.”
Please join CDF Capital as we lift up the families who were affected by this tragedy and the members of Valley Real Life who continue to minister to their community.