“Blessed – are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed – are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed – are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
It was thirty years ago, on 19 April 1993 television screens displayed live images of a fire near Waco, Texas which are now embedded in history. While the memory of Waco for most is remembered as a CNN story flashing on a television screen as a live news alert from afar, for some Seventh-day Adventist church members and their families, Waco was close-up, personal, devastating, life-changing and life-ending.
The story of what happened and why are well rehearsed, but in the college church on the campus of Newbold College of Higher Education (NCHE), on the occasion of the 30th anniversary on Wednesday 19 April 2023 a ‘Service of Reflection, Remembrance, Resilience and Reassurance’ took place jointly organised by leaders of NCHE, the British Union Conference (BUC), and the Trans-European Division (TED) with the theme of ‘Anchored’.
The purpose was to offer a quiet space for reflection, in the company of friends, a place to pray, to sing, and to hear the story again and perhaps for some from a new perspective. And with a mixture of both humility and confidence – to listen again to the Word of God. To those gathered, church leaders, members, family and friends, the unspoken aim was to share and understand together in the most gentle and gracious way, “The Kingdom of God is not like this…the Waco way.” And in sharing this hope-filled message, the purpose provides continuing comfort to those who mourn the loss of a loved one/loved ones.
With excellent and inspiring music led by Ken Burton and the Tessera group, and readings of scripture from Matthew (the Beatitudes), Hebrews (“We have an anchor for the soul…a safe and steadfast hope”), and Galatians (“Carry one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfil the requirements of the law of Christ”), all surrounded by two key homilies given by Pastors Ian Sweeney preaching on Jesus as our only hope, and Jonathan Holder explaining that our faith is anchored in Jesus and Him alone.
But there were also two other features to the service. The first was a series of video and live interviews led by Sky News anchor Gillian Joseph, inviting those directly involved in the story thirty years ago to tell their story. Pastors Jeff Brown and Eric Lowe, ministering in Manchester and Nottingham in 1993 and whose members left England to join the Waco commune; Dr Albert Waite who sought to mentor and seek to convince Newbold College student, Clifford Sellors about the dangers of being allured by the Waco Branch Davidians; Vilroy McBean, brother of John McBean, Newbold student and victim; and Dimplets Taylor a close friend of the Henry family – most of whom lost their lives. Taylor also nearly lost her sister-in-law, Yvette, who escaped from the compound by crawling across the field at night.
At the end of these interviews, a minute’s silence was held, with a visual roll call of UK victims who died at Waco.
Dr Daniel Duda (TED President) expressed his condolences and shared the importance of ‘remembering’ because “it helps us comfort those who need to be comforted and helps us to see those who need our embrace, our gentle touch, our understanding and support.” He continued by advising that we “need to be careful of which story we believe, because the narrative is going to shape our destiny.” Ending his words on a note of hope he shared, “We are here as a community to put our arms around each other, respect individual choices and see each other to the kingdom…and in this we are all together.”
The second feature was a series of four presentations by a mix of scholars and pastors with the aim of graciously communicating who we are, and how, we wished our community then and even now, renewed and committed itself to a balanced understanding of scripture and its key teachings. Pastor Ivana Mendez (Lecturer in Biblical Languages NCHE) shared Principles of Biblical Interpretation; Dr Lawrence Turner (Principal Lecturer Emeritus NCHE) Prophetic Understanding of the Old Testament; Dr Jean-Claude Verrecchia (Principal Lecturer Emeritus NCHE) presented a lecture on Hebrews – confirming the all sufficiency of Christ’s ministry, superseding the Old Testament Sanctuary; and Dr Gina Miller (Sabbath School Ministries Director, North England Conference) spoke on the Assurance of Salvation.
These lectures, the homilies, the interviews, and the music can be found on the video recording of service. To view click here.
While invites were extended to the many UK surviving relatives, few chose to come, others were unable to attend.
What impression did the service leave on those who attended?
Brit McCourt (Newbold College Church)
I found the programme beautiful and respectful – it was a fitting memorial. I liked the music, the tributes, the prayers – overall, it was an exquisite programme. You could feel Christian love and compassion rather than condemnation throughout the service. Thank you.
Pastor Jonathan Holder (NCHE visiting lecturer, Homiletics)
The event remembering Waco was a real pleasure to be at and to be a part of. Although it commemorated something awful, it was good to be reminded of both the history and impact of what happened at Waco, and to know that the people who died over there, have not been forgotten.
Pastor Eglan Brooks (BUC President)
We have spent this day remembering our loved ones who we have lost. Remembering their stories, remembering their experiences, remembering the joy they brought into our lives, and remembering the tragedy of their loss. We will never forget them.
Paul Lee (Adventist Radio London Director)
We are reminded by the experience of some countries and organisations trying to right discrepancies of the past, that truths are very often hard to face when they are attached to shame.
The Waco tragedy took the lives of a number of people I knew personally. Thirty years on the memory has not made it any easier to accept. Seeing surviving family members on the anniversary of the tragedy made it even more pertinent in that the names of those lost were recognised by the Church from which they came, maybe for the first time. The human side of this has finally come to the fore, and for me there will be some comfort in knowing that those who perished will be remembered as family, loved ones, and friends.
Pastor Don McFarlane (BUC President, 2010-2015)
Congratulations to the BUC, Newbold College, and the TED for the event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Waco inferno that claimed the lives of scores of Adventists and former Adventists. Not only was the event an inspiring worship experience, but its cathartic element for those also present who had lost loved ones and friends to Waco was palpable.
At the end of the commemoration, BUC President, Eglan Brooks gave the benediction.
Father, we pray for the families, and the memories
that this moment has rekindled.
May such memories serve to simply remind us
that You have your hands of protection around us.
Father, bring us Your comfort even at this time.
We thank the individuals who planned this programme.
We thank the people who opened their hearts,
and shared their precious memories.
We thank the individuals who performed so ably.
We thank you for the leadership of this Division, Newbold College, the
British Union Conference, the Conferences and Missions.
As a Church help us to learn lessons.
Help us not to be so judgemental.
Help us to provide a safe environment for our members,
and people who interact with us,
so they too can flourish as a result of Your presence.
Help us to be a caring, personal and compassionate church
and a church protected by Your presence in our lives.
Now in the words of Acts 20:32 –
“I commit all of us to God and to the word of his grace,
which can build us up, and give us an
inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
Finally, Lord when You decide to put an end to this sin-broken-world,
and You burst through those clouds in the sky.
May we, Your servants, our families, along with those we have laboured for,
Have an eternal home in heaven!
This is our prayer in the precious name of our
Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
To read more about the 30th anniversary commemoration service, go to:
Waco – The Relatives Speak link
Waco – Lessons Learned link
The 30th Waco Anniversary Commemoration news team: Sam Davies (BUC Comms & Media), Lubica Mueller, (NCHE Communication), David Neal (TED Comms & Media), Kevin Thomas( photos), Vanesa Pizzuto (Assoc TED Comms & Media), Julian Thompson (Messenger Editor).