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25 years later, memories of OKC bombing remain vivid

All these years later, the memory remains vivid. Anthony Jordan was headed to his office at church, waiting at a stoplight—when suddenly, everything shook. And then he saw smoke rising from the downtown skyline, more than five miles away.

“You talk to any Oklahoma City person, and I promise you, they can tell you exactly where they were when the bomb went off,” said Jordan, who was pastor of Oklahoma City, Northwest at the time.

At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a truck packed with explosives placed by a Gulf War veteran detonated. It tore a gaping hole in the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building—and left a lasting scar on the state of Oklahoma.

The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured almost 700 others. Until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil. Twenty-five years later, it remains an unimaginable, yet unforgettable horror.

“The heart of Oklahoma City was struck when the bomb went off,” says Jordan, who served as executive director of Oklahoma Baptists from 1996-2018. But he adds:

“We saw the raw face of evil—but we also saw the hope that we have in Christ.”

That hope began to shine almost immediately after the blast.

Tom Elliff, then pastor of Del City, First Southern, was in a staff meeting when the bomb went off. Though the Murrah Building was more than seven miles away, they felt it—and moments later, after turning on a TV, they recognized the need would be immense.

Within a few minutes, Elliff and several other staff members from the church arrived at the site, where they joined other pastors who served as chaplains. In those first few days, that included going into the rubble with first responders. As rescue missions morphed sadly into recovery, the chaplains’ main ministry during those early hours and days was to those first-responders, who often struggled emotionally when they found bodies.

“It just seemed interminable, day after day,” said Elliff, who served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1997-98 and later served as president of the International Mission Board from 2011-14. “Everybody was just in shock at that moment.”

That included those who were ministering. After several days onsite, Elliff recalled thinking to himself that he was surprised at how well he was handling things. But then, after he’d returned home one evening, he got a phone call from a friend, who asked: “How are you doing?”

“I broke down and cried,” he said. “I realized it had just been pent up.”

Even so, the collective response of Oklahomans to the bombing was in many ways astonishing. When needs were identified and announced, they were quickly met. Volunteers rushed to the site to help or to bring equipment, water or food. The spirit of somber unity and resolve became known as the “Oklahoma Standard.” But there was clearly something more.

“The bombing set us back on our heels,” Elliff said, “but it did not find us poorly prepared for what might have been our finest hour. It certainly rocked us back. But in minutes, churches were there, Christ was proclaimed, people were counseled and ministered to and hearts were opened.”

On the next Sunday, four days after the bombing, OKC, Northwest’s service was attended by a reporter from the New York Times. Jordan’s message focused on hope in Christ; he recalls afterward the reporter’s astonishment “at this core underpinning of faith they found here in Oklahoma City.”

“The heart of Oklahoma came out,” Jordan said. “That, to me, was very important. And that was also a heart that revealed our faith and hope in God… Oklahomans responded by crying out to God, going to our churches to worship and to find hope in Him.”

Likewise, Elliff recalls an openness to spiritual things, as the bombing provided stark evidence of man’s frailty and the truth that tomorrow is not promised.

“There was an ease with which we could speak about Jesus,” Elliff said. “There were people during that time who came to know the Lord as their Savior. I’m not going to say that suddenly people were flooding down the aisle, but people realized they were wrestling with matters of eternal significance. It was a stark wake-up call.

“… All of a sudden, people realized that life at its longest is very brief, and when hearts are broken, Christ is the only answer. All the counseling is very good, but in the end God is the healer of broken hearts.”

Both Jordan and Elliff noted that while many lives were changed by Christ, the larger moment of spiritual openness passed. But long after the rubble had been cleared, the impact lingered in the form of mental and emotional trauma of survivors, including fear and depression.

Four years after the bombing, a report in the journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association suggested the act of terrorism resulting in mass casualties had created issues for virtually everyone: “No one is immune,” the journal stated.

One study showed the mental health of young children in the state had been negatively affected by repeated news reports of what the journal described as a “titanic human disaster.” And a survey of 325 Oklahoma City firefighters who responded to the explosion showed those with strong religious faith had been better able to heal.

Oklahoma Baptists, including Joe Williams, longtime director of chaplains for Oklahoma Baptists, were instrumental in helping people cope through critical incident stress management workshops—something Williams later conducted in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Even now, Jordan and Elliff say, the residual effects linger—sometimes in ways that are difficult to identify. For example, while the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum opened in 2001 on the site where the Murrah Building once stood, Jordan didn’t visit until several years later. When he did, he said, “It was as if it had happened the day before.”

“Seeing all the things I saw there, people I knew and cared about, Oklahomans who were here during that time—you just don’t forget, and you don’t get past,” he said. “And to walk into that museum brought all those raw feelings back again.”

Earlier this week, Elliff received a text message from a longtime friend who’d been involved in the rescue, recovery and ministry efforts in the hours and days after the bombing. The friend told Elliff, “Some years, I hardly think about it. Some years I think about it.” And then he recounted a memory that remains vivid, all these years later.

“I knew it had profoundly affected his life,” Elliff said.

Even 25 later, that remains true — but so does this:

“I look back on those times,” Jordan said, “and it was traumatic. It was painful. It was a scary time in many ways. But God’s grace was sufficient, I promise you.”

Both Jordan and Elliff said in the years since, when the state has been visited by more devastation, including the havoc and death wrought by several large tornadoes, the “Oklahoma Standard” has again been evident—and God’s goodness has been as well. Even today, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, they pray Oklahoma’s Baptists remain ready to share the reason for the hope they have.

“The God who was faithful to comfort and supply healing following that is the God who is perfectly capable of being faithful today to provide healing and a new direction for the future,” Elliff said. “That’s found only in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Author: George Schroeder

George Schroeder is associate vice president for convention news at the SBC Executive Committee.

View more articles by George Schroeder.

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