“Say that again.”
Ben Hayes’ phone had rung moments before, waking him up, and he was trying to understand what he had just heard. He didn’t feel like it could be real, so he asked the caller to repeat herself.
“There’s been a shooting in Dadeville, and Phil is dead.”
Philstavious Dowdell — a star athlete Hayes described as an “all-around great guy” — had been shot and killed at his younger sister’s sweet 16 birthday party that night, April 15.
And Hayes, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dadeville, Alabama, and chaplain for the local football team and police department, would soon find out that Dowdell wasn’t the only one.
Offering comfort to families and friends
Three more young people — Shaunkivia Nicole “Keke” Smith, 17; Marsiah Emmanuel “Siah” Collins, 19; and Corbin Dahmontrey Holston, 23 — were also killed, and 32 others were injured.
Hayes found a sea of hundreds of their family and friends when he got to the hospital 15 minutes after that phone call.
“I had called the police chief to ask if I could help, and he asked me if I would suit up and go there,” Hayes said. “There were so many people all waiting to hear something about their child — they didn’t know if their child was there or if they had been injured.”
He talked with the families, hugged them and prayed with them.
“I found several of my football players there who were in such shock that they couldn’t speak, with that thousand-yard stare,” Hayes said. “I put my arm around them and told them God loved them and that we would be there for them.”
And he watched as others arrived to help take care of people in the midst of the chaos.
“The EMS folks were so amazing, and they worked tirelessly for hours trying to save these kids,” Hayes said. “Dadeville High School nurses, coaches, teachers and mental health professionals came and just wrapped these kids up, hugging, crying and praying with them.”
And police officers started an intense investigation that as of April 20 has led to six arrests — brothers Ty Reik McCullough, 17, and Travis McCullough, 16, of Tuskegee; Johnny Letron Brown, 20, and a 15-year-old male (name not released due to his age) also of Tuskegee; and Wilson LaMar Hill Jr., 20, and Willie George Brown Jr., 19, of Auburn.
Looking to help for the long haul
The mass shooting set a lot of things in motion ministry-wise for Hayes, starting with the families and friends of the victims at the hospital and progressing to the police department.
“It’s been a rough time for our police officers,” Hayes said. “Many of these guys on the force were in the military and they’ve seen horrible things, but the scene with these children was horrific.”
And ministry has expanded from there into the community, both in the immediate and in planning for the long term.
After about an hour of sleep the night of the shooting, Hayes got up and prayed with everyone arriving early for the church service that morning. After the service, which he said God orchestrated from beginning to end, he led a funeral that was planned before the shooting.
Serving to the glory of God
And after that, he headed to a prayer vigil the church held for the community in the church parking lot.
“I prayed, ‘God, let me do this in a way that will glorify you,’” Hayes said.
He wasn’t alone in that moment — seven Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers had shown up to help out at the vigil, in addition to him and his wife, Sonya, and James Smith, Tallapoosa Baptist Association director of missions, and his wife, Jerilyn, who are all also trained ABDR chaplains.
Hayes said the “Alabama Baptist family stepped up and has been such a blessing to us.”
“God just did it all on Sunday,” he said. “It has been such a blessing to see how God has used so many different people from so many different churches to come together and minister.”
‘In just the right spot’
Mark Wakefield, state disaster relief strategist, said Hayes has been trained in crisis intervention, and that plus the relationships he’s built in the community put him in just the right spot to help when this tragedy happened.
“In addition to his providing and setting up things, he has been with a lot of people to meet needs and to be that listening supportive ear and provide a pastoral presence,” Wakefield said. “Pastoral care comes naturally to him — he has that kind of heart.”
Hayes is also on a relatively new state disaster relief task force, Wakefield said, and in the future Hayes will be leading the ministry of caring for ministers who serve in disaster.
“He’s living firsthand what he’s going to be shepherding,” Wakefield said.
‘Some of the toughest days of my life’
It will be valuable experience one day, but for right now, Hayes said he is focused on Dadeville.
Hayes talked to news crews in the hours after the tragedy, but as the week went on, his secretary, Glinda Dennis, shielded him from calls from media outlets all over the world. He wanted the time to focus on the people in front of him.
“These have been some of the toughest days of my life,” Hayes said. “I knew two of these kids; I’d been around them.”
But even so, he said he knows that God is going to use this tragedy for good.
“I just know we’re going to come through this better and stronger,” Hayes said. “I know that because of this there will be lost people brought to salvation. I know we’ll see amazing things come from this.”
Asking for prayer
He asked for prayer for the four students who are still in critical condition, for comfort for the families and for strength and peace for the first responders. He also asked for prayer for his church to be able to continue ministry to the community and “for those relationships that were created to enable us to do more things than we’ve ever done before.”
And Hayes said he would love prayer for him and other believers to know how to step into the gap to serve as friends and mentors for young people so that violence like this might one day end.
“Pray that hearts would change, because only through heart change will these kinds of situations stop happening,” he said. “Pray this will no longer be the norm. We as believers are going to have to step up. That will go a long way into changing the culture we’re living in.”