By Megan K. Mertz
It was still dark just after 5 a.m. on Aug. 13 when five people and two golden retrievers piled into the church van at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Joplin, Mo., and set out on a daytrip to St. Louis.
The four adults in the van — including the wife of Immanuel’s pastor, the Rev. Gregory Mech — are members of the congregation and handlers of Jackson and Louie, K-9 Comfort Dogs through Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) of Northbrook, Ill. The Mechs’ 10-year-old grandson also was along for the trip.
The group was headed to a regional training event for comfort dog handlers. But they hadn’t gone very far — only four blocks — when the driver of a passing vehicle suddenly fired gunshots into the van as it was stopped at a traffic light, injuring four of the people and both dogs.
Mech’s wife and grandson and another member received minor injuries, but the driver, Kenneth Eby, was shot in the chest. A bullet perforated his lung and pulmonary artery.
“[Ken] had the presence of mind to put the vehicle into park as soon as the gunshots rang out and he knew that he was hit,” Mech said. “He got out of the vehicle to try to draw away any additional fire. He’s a hero.”
According to national media outlets, the suspected shooter is 26-year-old Tom S. Mourning II of Joplin, who also wounded two other people in a truck. Mourning was arrested a short time later.
Mech acknowledged that some members of Immanuel might know Mourning’s family, since Joplin “is not a huge town,” but he said he isn’t aware of any connection between the suspect and anyone in the van.
“It seems that he shot at them to create a diversion,” Mech said, noting that police were already pursuing the man when he fired at the church van.
“It’s a blessing that the police were in pursuit because they actually contacted the emergency vehicles, which were on the spot before anybody in the van had time to unlock their phones and dial 911,” he said. “If they hadn’t, Ken probably wouldn’t have made it.”
Eby’s condition has been upgraded to serious but stable, and he is expected to make a full recovery.
The two dogs also were injured. Comfort Dog Jackson was treated for a gunshot wound to the ear, while Louie had surgery after being shot through the neck. Both dogs are now recovering.
During regularly scheduled services on Aug. 13 and Aug. 14, Mech said worshipers prayed for those affected as well as for the suspect.
“We hope that this doesn’t harden [Mourning’s] heart but instead softens it so that the Holy Spirit can do His work,” Mech said. “We’ve prayed several times since then ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ which is a prayer that the martyrs of the church could pray as well.”
Mech said he is grateful for the outpouring of support he and Immanuel have received from a number of sources. The LCMS Missouri District provided a counselor, and LCC sent seven dogs the next day. At Mech’s request, the Rev. Gene Wyssmann of the Missouri District staff also came with just a few hours’ notice to assist with Sunday services.
“Today, the passengers are getting past their shock, and beginning to think about how close death came to them,” according to a message posted to Immanuel’s Facebook page Aug. 16.
“The thoughts of ‘what if?’ are difficult to handle, but these brave survivors are surrounded by hope, comfort and compassion coming from close friends, family and all of you.”
Megan K. Mertz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer and managing editor of Lutherans Engage the World with LCMS Communications.
Posted August 22, 2016 / Updated August 23, 2016