Tragedy puts spotlight on small, obscure church

Illinois-based pastor is among those killed in shooting

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/March 13, 2005
By Dave Unhoefer, Marie Rohde and Graeme Zielinski

The Living Church of God, a relatively new organization born of a contentious split over religious doctrine, is small but spreads its word through weekly telecasts on 150 stations in several countries.

While there was no known motive for Saturday's slayings at a Brookfield hotel, the man believed responsible had been upset about a taped sermon by the church's spiritual leader, Roderick C. Meredith, according to a fellow congregation member who survived the attack. She reported that the sermon by Meredith, who is seen on many of those broadcasts, dealt with a coming "spiritual war."

The shootings brought the relatively obscure church, its members and its teachings into the spotlight in a tragic way.

The slayings came on Saturday, the church's day of worship as practiced in the time of the Old Testament. Members, who believe the Bible is the literal word of God, were gathering as they do throughout the country in small groups at rented halls, hotels and other locations.

Members believe that the "Great Tribulation" - war and famine as prophesied in the Bible - is nearing and that Christ will return as "King of kings."

Meredith, the church's presiding evangelist, warned in a February sermon of the urgent need to prepare physically and spiritually for the "end time," according to a text of the sermon on the church's Web site. He talked of a pending financial collapse that could devastate the United States, and he encouraged church members to prepare by paying off debts and gathering savings to guard against job loss and bank failures.

"We are not talking about decades in the future," Meredith wrote. "We are talking about Bible prophecies that will intensify in the next five to 15 years of your life."

In a recent telecast, he warned that a mysterious spirit war in the next several years will change the world and alter lives.

The non-denominational church dates only to the 1990s, a spiritual descendant of the Worldwide Church of God, which was established by the late Herbert W. Armstrong. In 2003, when it moved its headquarters to Charlotte, N.C., from San Diego, it listed 6,300 members at some 200 congregations in 40 countries. Many of its members are from the Southern United States.

The church produces a TV program, "Tomorrow's World," that is seen around the world. The "Tomorrow's World" Web site lists Wausau as the only Wisconsin city receiving the broadcast. The show airs on WGN television from Chicago early on Sunday mornings. Recent episodes have included "A Nation of Adulterers?" and "Prophetic Milestones Ahead."

The church's beliefs are rooted in the Bible. It cites its mission as preaching the true gospel of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.

According to an article by Meredith that is posted online, the Living Church of God is where "the full truth of the Bible is taught and practiced."

The Worldwide Church of God splintered over disagreements on doctrine and church governance, according to information on Web sites maintained by that church. The Living Church of God is the second largest group that formed from that split, said Jim King, a longtime member in Omaha, Neb., who is active in choir direction. He said the United Church of God was the largest new religious organization to form from the break up.

Church leaders and members from around the country struggled to take in the stunning news Saturday.

"This is pretty shocking," King said. He said he worried that the public would jump to unfair conclusions about the church.

"We're still trying to put it all together. This is such a shock," said Charles E. Bryce, director of administration for the church at its North Carolina headquarters. Bryce said he would fly to Milwaukee today to learn more about the violence.

One of those killed in Saturday's shootings in Brookfield was Randy L. Gregory, a 50-year-old Gurnee, Ill., resident who church members say had served as a regional pastor for Living Church of God congregations for many years.

"He is a very fine man," said King, who said he met and worked alongside Gregory last fall in Missouri at the church's Feast of Tabernacles, a holy week for the church. "He's very committed and dedicated to his work."

Bryce, a close friend of Gregory's, described the congregation that meets at the Sheraton hotel in Brookfield as "a wonderful group" led by Gregory.

Gregory, a veteran pastor in the church, traveled in the Midwest serving various congregations. His wife, Marjean, accompanied him to the Feast of Tabernacles, according to King.

Gregory lived with his family off a quiet cul-de-sac in Gurnee in a modest, two-story home with basketball hoop. Neighbors said he, his wife and two sons were friendly but reserved.

"He was very quiet, almost overly so," said a friend and neighbor, Toni D'Amore, a dental hygienist.

D'Amore said the family had moved to Gurnee from Texas approximately five years ago and chose the city because it was the midway point between Milwaukee and Chicago, where Randy Gregory also had a congregation.

The couple's younger son, James, was one of those killed Saturday. He was a junior at Warren Township High School, she said. Jonathan, the elder of the two sons, had recently completed studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

The split in the Worldwide Church of God has had serious side effects, with lingering disputes over doctrine and finger-pointing between people who used to worship together but are now apart, King noted.

According to its Web site, the Worldwide Church of God is a Christian denomination with about 64,000 members worshipping in 860 congregations in about 90 nations. It is based in Pasadena, Calif. That church is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.

A new leader of the Worldwide Church of God in the late 1980s tried to bring that church's teachings into closer alignment with traditional Evangelical beliefs. That caused turmoil and led to the splintering of the denomination and the eventual formation of the Living Church of God.

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