Pastor on pre-Easter tragedy: ‘Evil is not the last word’

The Rev. Keith Head’s last Easter before retiring as a United Methodist pastor proved tragically memorable, as he had to address the slayings of a prominent couple in his congregation—a case that has made international news.

Mike McLelland, district attorney of Kaufman County, Texas, and his wife Cynthia, were found shot to death in their home near Forney, Texas on March 30.

Keith Head

The next day was Easter, and Mr. Head, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Terrell, Texas, faced what he called an “elephant in the sanctuary” situation. The crowd—on what was supposed to be the most joyous Sunday of the year—filed in burdened by news that their fellow church members had been killed, execution style.

“I thanked them for coming and being here on Easter morning, and told them they were here as a witness to the fact that evil is not the last word,” Mr. Head said. “It’s the resurrection of Jesus Christ that is the most powerful and brings God’s love as the last word.”

The brazen gunning down in late January of Mark Hasse, a prosecutor on McClelland’s staff, has yielded extraordinary attention by law enforcement and the media to the McLellands’ killings, with a connection assumed as the investigation goes forward involving local, state and federal officers.

The Dallas Morning News reported that a U.S. Marshals Service email said the focus of that agency’s probe into Mr. Hasse’s death was the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist prison gang.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed as temporary head of the Kaufman County district attorney’s office Brandi Fernandez, who successfully prosecuted an Aryan Brotherhood case.

The latest slayings increased anxiety in the communities of Kaufman County, east of Dallas. And many residents, particularly at First UMC of Terrell, were mourning as well the loss of their friends the McLellands.

“They were model citizens and faithful members of First United Methodist of Terrell,” Mr. Head said. “We are grieved beyond measure.”

Mr. Head noted that the couple was active in the church, with Mr. McLelland part of a rotation of teachers for the Unity Sunday school class. The 63-year-old district attorney, who earned his law degree from Texas Wesleyan University, had joined in a church council planning retreat last January. Ms. McLelland was known in the church for, among other things, the beautiful quilts she made.

Mike McLelland joined Shirley Miller (l) and Ann McDonald in a breakout meeting during the First UMC Terrell church council planning retreat on Jan. 12. PHOTO COURTESY THE REV. KEITH HEAD

Mr. Head said many in the area were concerned about the McLellands’ safety after the killing of Mr. Hasse.

“I talked to them personally about that,” Mr. Head said. “[Mike McLelland] spent 23 years in the military. He was a veteran of the Gulf War. I’ve heard him say to people that he had his trusty pistol with him, and he wasn’t worried.”

Mr. Head noted that after Mr. Hasse’s killing, Mr. McLelland had vowed publicly, in strong tones, to bring those responsible to justice.

“When I first heard him say that, I thought, ‘Oh my, he shouldn’t have done that. That’s a direct challenge right there to somebody,’” Mr. Head said.

Mr. Head is in his 39th year of ministry, and retires July 1 as a clergyman within the North Texas Conference.

The pastor has dealt with a wide range of tragedies, and once had a parishioner who owned a check-cashing store, and was killed in a robbery.

But nothing in his pastoral experience, Mr. Head noted, compares to the McLelland killings.

“I’ve never had a double murder in my congregation,” he said.

That it would happen just before Easter heightened the emotion. But there was nothing to do but deal straightforwardly, and theologically, with what happened, Mr. Head said.

On Easter, he read from the Gospel of John’s proclamation of the resurrection. Then he said he told the crowd “our church right now is still in Good Friday” because of the killings, but must hold onto the promise of Easter.

“We were able to give a witness to God’s love and grace over against the worst that evil has to offer,” Mr. Head said. “That’s a real Easter proclamation.”

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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