Simple activities such as pumping gas, grocery shopping and mowing grass have become complicated for Washington, D.C.-area residents, living under the constant threat of a sniper attack. Since beginning his shooting spree Oct. 2, the suspect has killed nine people and wounded two throughout the greater Washington, D.C. area (including Maryland and Northern Virginia).
Fearful residents are altering their daily routines - hiding behind gas pumps, walking in zigzag patterns, and staying indoors as much as possible - to try to avoid becoming the sniper's next target.
Ballistic evidence currently being examined might link a 12th person shot and wounded in the Richmond, Va. area to the elusive sniper. Police took a man into custody Oct. 21 but are not yet certain if he is connected to the case.
In a community paralyzed by fear, Christians are trying to turn to God for hope. They're holding prayer services, talking about the crisis from the pulpit, and counseling many people struggling with how to live under the threat of rampant -- and apparently random --killings.
Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Va., recently held a "Concert of Prayer" worship and prayer service to pray for God's protection on the area and ask Him to use local Christians to help bring about peace. "It's not the sniper who is in control, just as it's not the terrorists who are in control. It's God who is in control," said Hayes Perdue, the church's director of pastoral care ministry. "We serve a sovereign God who has promised to hear our prayers and respond to them if we humble ourselves and turn to Him. Even the most evil situation in the world is still under God's control."
Fear is Real
Knowing that intellectually, however, doesn't mean that people don't struggle emotionally with fear, Perdue said. "Trusting the Lord doesn't mean that we can't experience our emotions. We have reason to be afraid because we're living in a dangerous, fallen world. So it's wise to be cautious. And we can allow ourselves to honestly experience and express our emotions without feeling guilty."
Springfield, Va. resident Lora Todaro admits that the shootings have made her anxious. "I sometimes have trouble sleeping, I'm more efficient about doing errands, and I've even found myself walking in a zigzag pattern when I'm outside. But when dangerous thoughts come into my mind, I just try to pray."
Washington, D.C. resident Annie Lienert said she wondered recently while walking outside whether her bright red coat would make her an easy target for the sniper. But she hasn't changed her routine much. "I just trust that God is sovereign," she said. "I don't take unnecessary risks, but I do try to keep up with my regular activities as much as possible."
Perdue has counseled people who are struggling with their fears to give them to God. "When we're dealing with a crisis like this, we begin to imagine the what-ifs: 'What would happen if I get shot? What would happen if someone I love gets shot?' When we let ourselves get carried away by those thoughts, they become idols to us. We look at them rather than God, who can help us. The first step to overcome that is to worship God, so we can get our focus back on Him. Then instead of wondering, 'What am I going to do?' you can ask, 'What is God going to do?' and know that He will act in love and wisdom because it's His nature to do so."
Where is God?
People traumatized by tragedies such as this one may mistakenly blame God, said Reverend R. Kay Barger, a minister at Rockville United Methodist Church in Maryland. Barger personally knew one of the sniper's victims (who was a member of a church she'd served prior to Rockville United Methodist).
"When something like this happens, people very understandably ask, 'Where is God in all this?' and as Christians, we realize that this is not something that God did, but that He has given people the power to choose, and sometimes evil rears its ugly head because of bad choices." It helps to honestly acknowledge fear and pray through it often, she said.
Many people have had to work through their frustrations that, "Right now, normalcy is not available," Barger said. Throughout the crisis, children at her church's preschool have had to forgo outdoor recess and field trips. Outdoor events across the region - from homecoming games to concerts - have been cancelled, postponed, or moved to locations as far as 150 miles away.
Fairfax (Virginia) High School cheerleader Stephanie Wyckoff, 15, was disappointed that recent football games she and her teammates were scheduled to participate in haven't taken place. "It's just annoying, because we've worked hard and had really been looking forward to the games," she said. "In some ways, I think they're overreacting, but I understand in some ways, too, that it makes sense to take precautions."
Jim Wyckoff, Stephanie's father, said he was glad the games were postponed. "It's worth everything you have to go through if you can prevent just one injury," he said. "I was very disappointed for the kids, but you have to take precautions in a situation like this."
But some good has come out of all the bad that the sniper has brought about, Wyckoff said. "Something like this causes us to pull together as a community, to work together however we can and watch out for each other."
Lienert said the attacks, "make me want to keep short accounts with people - keeping relationships loving, dealing with conflict. I try to let my son know every time I have to leave him for any reason how I much I love him."
The shootings may help turn people to God by helping them realize that absolute truths do exist, said Todaro. "No matter how many times our culture is confronted by evil, we're still surprised by it. So many times, people think that everything is relative, but something like this wakes you up to show you that there are absolutes, that evil is real."
Ultimately, said Perdue, people wary of the sniper need to consider whether they'd be ready to meet God face-to-face if they did die suddenly. "The ultimate question we all need to ask ourselves is, 'If I'm the sniper's next victim, will I be ready?'"
PHOTO from AP/WideWorld: Marcella Hahn, left, holds the attention of her dog Hazel with a ball as her fianc Paul Fezza, second from right looks on after completing a three mile run on the Walter Johnson High School track Friday, Oct. 18, 2002 in Bethesda, Md. Hahn had to be convinced to go running for the first time since the sniper attacks began on Oct. 2. On average football players practicing or playing a game would normally overrun the track and field but not this night with one of the sniper attacks taking place approximately three miles away. (AP Photo/Victoria Aorcho)