by Brenda Slatton
SAN ANTONIO – When tragedy strikes a community as it did in Sutherland Springs, a town outside San Antonio, in early November, people ask, “Where was God?” And the answer is, “God was in control.”
Stephen Willeford, long-time member of the Church of Christ, lives a half block away from the First Baptist Church where evil took the lives of 26 people on a late Sunday morning. The gunman stormed the church during Sunday morning service, emptying fifteen 30 round magazines; that’s over 450 rounds of ammunition.
Stephen was able to use his own gun to stop the shooting. According to some, Stephen is a hero but according to Stephen, God gets all the credit.
“I’m a tool of God and the Holy Spirit was telling me don’t worry about the shots fired at me, just worry about putting the bullets where need to put them,” Stephen said in an interview with the Christian News. “It was pure evil coming out of that church. I want God’s glory to shine through. God’s glory. He pushed me, He protected me.”
The story is a true David vs. Goliath story as Stephen ran barefoot from his house while loading his rifle with a hand full of bullets to stop the gunman.
“I can tell you what I’ve pieced together from the people in the church that I have talked to since then,” Stephen said. “He was going down the aisles of the church and finishing everybody off that he left alive and he was coming to two ladies and I yelled, ‘HEY!’ Why I yelled I can’t tell you but he heard it and they heard it and he left them and turned around and ran out of the church.
“To me, just thinking about it, that was crazy, it was nuts, I feel like when I yelled it was the Holy Spirit calling out the demons,” Stephen said. “I have no explanation for it other than the spirit that was within me called out the demons that were within him. I believe it was absolutely a spiritual warfare beyond this world that was happening at that moment. For a non-Christian, that sounds nuts, and for some Christians that may sound nuts, but I really believe it. I believe I was covered with invisible armor.”
The killer ran out of the church and into his SUV he had parked in the middle of the street with the driver side door open and the engine running, while taking pot shots at Stephen. Despite taking fire from the assailant, Stephen managed to shoot him in the leg and in the torso between the body armor he was wearing hitting the gunman with two of the only six bullets he used.
“I’m dead convinced that the Holy Spirit was on me the whole time and kept my head together. Everything was a calculated shot when I was shooting,” he said. “My head was so clear, it was the peace that passes all understanding,” Stephen said. “I heard God’s call and allowed God to use me. Like David when he faced Goliath, I let God control all of it. I was pushed by God and all his power covered me.”
Stephen credits God for giving him peace and a clear head throughout the ordeal which included an 11-mile car chase and ended in the gunman crashing and then, according to reports, taking his own life.
“I’ve been used as a tool, I’ve had a lot of training for this.” Stephen said of his years spent shooting and training others to shoot. “It was God fashioning a tool. I feel like a chisel he used to do the job, but he is not going to leave me all damaged. He’s got the file out and he’s fashioning me into something better; a more gentle use, I hope.”
Answering God’s call runs in the family. Stephen and his wife Pam have three grown children. Stephanie, the oldest, heard the gunshots and alerted her father. As he ran to get a weapon, Stephanie got in her car and drove around the short block to assess the situation.
“When I drove up to the corner next to the neighbor’s house I saw him standing in the doorway with his black tactical gear,” Stephanie said. “I think he came outside to reload because he was messing with his rifle. He wasn’t shooting at the time, so my mind thought, this is either a joke, or a prank or some kind of churchdramatization for the sermon to make some kind of point. Then he turned and walked inside and I heard more gunfire and I thought, ‘I have to go home and tell dad what’s going on.’”
But her father was already pulling his gun out of the safe and loading it. When he headed out the door to confront the gunman his 26-year-old daughter started to follow. Stephen gave her busy work and told her to go and load him another magazine in case he needed it.
“Stephanie is my shadow, in many ways she’s just like me,” Stephen said. “I needed her in the house and out of the way. I did not want to give him another target.”
Stephanie, like her father, trusted her Heavenly Father to watch over her but she feared for her dad’s safety.
“I was in a dead panic,” she said. “After dad left I was on the phone with mom and I just about lost my mind; I was terrified. I heard shots fired and I thought that could be dad’s life.”
The family has been through a lot since the tragic events of Nov. 5. The initial not knowing what happened or where Stephen had gone was followed by the loss of multiple friends and neighbors and the ensuing media attention. Confronting evil does not come without a cost.
While Stephen was trained in the use of firearms, he’s employed as a plumber. He has been married to Pam for 28 Years. They met at Oak Hills Church of Christ, married and had three children. They later attended Northwest Church of Christ.
“Pam is my rock,” Stephen said. “She’s the love of my life. She holds me up when I am weak. She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known in my life. She’s handling it like the true lady that she is. I married up and I’m ok with it.”
Pam says the experience has been humbling because of all the support, messages and prayers from all over the world.
“It’s been overwhelming experience, to think that my husband did this but it’s been very humbling that so many people have poured out their love and support and prayers,” Pam said. “I know that all of the prayers are what has sustained my family and kept us all humble. We appreciate the prayers and we covet them more because it’s going to be a long road.
“He (Stephen) has struggled with kind of wanting the attention but not wanting it,” she added. “We’ve talked about that that’s Satan trying to come in here and mess this whole thing up. He has a message to get out that this was not him, that this was a total God thing. This was God working through a willing vessel who allowed it to happen.”
Stephen has also had support from politicians and has met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senator Ted Cruz, Congressman Henry Cuellar, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Governor Greg Abbott.
“Everybody is backing me and giving me everything I need,” Stephen said. “I shook hands with Vice President Pence. I hugged him and I prayed with him.”
The initial media swarm around the community and his house was hard and the fame has been hard for him.
“You wouldn’t believe it– it’s all crazy,” Stephen said. “I don’t know how to deal with it. I’m human. I don’t want to enjoy notoriety. I’m asking everyone to pray for me. I’m asking for prayers for humility, I’m asking for prayers for peace.”
It was God’s planning that had Stephen at home instead of church that Sunday morning. Despite it all, Stephen says he’s ready for God’s next call.
“I still want to be whatever God needs me to be,” Stephen said. “The whole thing was beyond me, God was in control and he took care of it.”
For more of the interview with the Willeford family go to christiannewsst.wordpress.com.