Starrville Methodist Church Prayer Meeting

Rosemary McWilliams speaks about the loss of her husband pastor Mark Allen McWilliams during a prayer meeting at Starrville Methodist Church on Tuesday January 5, 2021. Mark was fatally shot by a man hiding from law enforcement in the church Sunday morning. (Michael Cavazos/ News-Journal Photo)

The Starrville Methodist Church has 12 members. On any given Sunday, some of those members might attend another church in the area or instead a Tuesday prayer group at the church.

In Starrville, a non-incorporated community with a Winona mailing address, most everyone knows each other but they also do not know each other. Each house is separated with a plot of land, woods, pastures and farms.

There are some majestic homes down sprawling driveways and there are a lot of modest homes.

It’s a community of hard-working East Texans who value faith. There is one stretch of two houses per church.

But the community has been rocked this month. First, the pastor of the Starrville Methodist Church, Mark McWilliams, was shot to death by a man on the run from police. He shot at the pastor’s wife a few times and missed. He also shot another church member who survived.

This past week, a fire started at a Starrville home. A White Oak volunteer firefighter in his pickup truck witnessed a nightmare of an event. Edwin Harris, 31, was frantically trying to put out a fully-engulfed house fire while trying to get in and save his girlfriend, Brittany Stewart, 24, and their three children, ages, 5, 2 and 1. He could not get into the home to save Brittany or the two boys and the infant daughter.

Neither incident makes sense.

I don’t know where Edwin Harris is going to get the strength to go forward. Spiritually or financially. However, residents of East Texas are trying to be his guardian angel. Donations to a GoFundMe page are coming in slow, but they are coming in. Those who do not have money to give are offering prayer, fellowship and food.

Three days after Mark McWilliams was shot, the Tuesday prayer service was held. Except this time, there were over 100 people at the church, not the usual 12.

Mark McWilliams’ personal group of disciples who followed his word of the Lord had grown.

As what happens at any church service, there were the sounds of rustling feet, a few beeps from cell phones, coughs, whispers and stretching. This service was nearing the two-hour point.

That’s when Rosemary McWilliams stood up and went behind a podium to speak. The podium was not on the altar. It was near the pews. The altar still belonged to Mark McWilliams and everyone was convinced his spirit was in attendance.

Rosemary, his wife, took the microphone and cord and in one graceful motion, moved from behind the podium to the front to address the crowd.

Suddenly, the sounds of rustling feet, cell phone notifications, coughs and whispers turned to silence. She broke the silence with her affirmation to her Lord and savior. She talked about Mark, she talked about the incident and she talked about the man she witnessed killing her husband. She asked for mercy on his soul.

Rosemary gave everyone in attendance hope that God has a plan for everyone on this earth and after. She spoke for nearly 25 minutes and each word and sentence was delivered with clarity and grace. Her passionate and powerful sermon was not scripted, she did not use notes. It was almost a scene from a movie when an actor perfects their lines. Except this was for 25 minutes.

When she was done, the mood had changed in the church. There was no hate. People stayed another hour talking about Mark, exchanging phone numbers and setting up new prayer groups, as there were people in attendance from Fort Worth and Louisiana.

The crowd of over 100 went down to six or seven. Everyone was waiting to talk to Rosemary McWilliams. She was not just someone to say I’m sorry to, she was now an inspiration everyone wanted to meet and greet. Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith waited almost 20 minutes to have a few words with her, as their first meetings were during the worst of times.

Finally, the only people left were a few members of the media setting up across the street for live TV segments later that day.

Out of the church, closing the doors was Rosemary McWilliams. A car was ready for her and she flashed yet another smile and laughed as she got in the car.

She showed amazing strength through tragedy.

Today, the lights are still off at the church. Today, the only thing left of Edwin Harris’ home is charred remains.

Rosemary and Edwin have been strong for everyone else. Today may be the day they need the strength and fellowship of others.

John Anderson is the regional editor of the Longview News-Journal and the Tyler Morning Telegraph. He can be reached at janderson@mrobertsmedia.com

twitter @23johnanderson

Editor

John is a two-time national columnist of the year. He has earned top AP awards for news, videos and sports writing and won the Thomas J. Bulson Investigative Journalism award. He has appeared on CNBC's American Greed, FOX News and CNN.