The founding scripture for Promise Land Church in Frayser is Psalm 37:5, which reads, "Commit thy way unto the LORD, trust also in Him and He shall bring it to pass."
Senior Pastor Elliot R. Shelton said the church at 3430 Overton Crossing added an addendum to its mission statement this year, namely that Promise Land Church is dedicated to building people of courage, competence and character.
"In doing that we were looking out into the community trying to see how we could Evangelize and then educate the community as well as empower them," said Shelton.
Courage is what Rev. Shelton and his staff had to muster recently (Jan. 5) when gunfire erupted outside the church moments after the conclusion of funeral services for 24-year-old Randy Williams, who had been fatally shot outside Club Crave in downtown Memphis on Christmas Eve.
In an interview Wednesday (Jan. 9) with The New Tri-State Defender, Shelton declared that there would be no broken promises.
Kelvin Cowans: Your members and your members' families are welcome to have home going services in your sanctuary, correct?
Pastor Elliot R. Shelton: Indeed, we try to accommodate them. This particular member, Mr. Randy Williams, was actually a member of our church who joined with his mom. His mom is always here and she is one of our biggest supporters. So we officiated the service as me and my staff worked along with his mother, Ms. Ellen.
We made sure that the family had everything it needed for the service. We wanted to make sure that it would be a spiritual and heart felt service and it was. Still, we knew what we were dealing with and we knew what kind of group we would have and we wanted to minister to that group.
KC: What do you mean by you knew what kind of group you would have?
Pastor Shelton: We knew that it was going to be a young, urban population, gang members.
KC: Oh, so Randy Williams was a gang member?
Pastor Shelton: Now that I don't know.
KC: Who said that there would be gang members?
Pastor Shelton: We knew the scent of what we saw on television, and being that I've been pastoring for 20 years, I kind of knew this would be a service attended by a lot of people who probably don't go to church a lot. We had a Memphis Police car on hand out front. But no, I have no idea if he was a gang member, but I did have my staff plan accordingly, putting safety first for all involved.
KC: Let me back track for a second, just how did Mr. Williams die?
Pastor Shelton: I have no full understanding of what happened over there. My main and only concern was that his mom said to me that she just wanted to bury her son so that she could move on from this. Just like our church would do for any member, we assisted her with her wishes. We were there for her....
We've been in constant contact with her every since, letting her know that we love her and she's doing as well as anybody would be doing considering the circumstances of her son's passing and with the situation at the funeral.
KC: Replaying the funeral, you preached the eulogy?
Pastor Shelton: I did preach the eulogy.
KC: Well, do you think it was something you said that may have angered some? Or were you just doing your normal thing? In fact, what exactly did you preach about if you don't mind me asking, Pastor?
Pastor Shelton: I preached Luke Chapter 15:12 dealing with The Prodigal Son, a sermon titled "Don't miss the Party." Ironically, the story is basically what happened here without saying a lot...as the prodigal son went to a far away place but in the end made his way back home.
We had an awesome homegoing. The crowd, which was predominantly African-American male, began taking their shades off and letting their guards down as the service went to a spiritual high. I felt like they were saying that whatever we came here to do, we're not going to do it. There were 65 to 75 people that accepted Christ during this service.
Later, as we went out to put the body inside the car, there were at least 200 people standing outside the funeral, just a large crowd of people. I decided to slip back into the church quickly to change shirts, as we were indeed preparing to go bury this man.
While I'm inside changing, shots rang out and my assistants told me to get down on the ground from the window, and I did. Someone made the comment that the gun was of heavy artillery and very loud. Another comment was made that some young man was running away from the crowd gathered outside and shooting bullets back into the crowd.
After I got my shirt on and got up off the floor, me and my assistants rushed outside to do what we do, which is minister to everyone that was out there. We were checking to see who got shot. Glory be to God no one did. People were frantic and their hands were shaking and it was so surreal to me. I had never seen anything like this in my life. We saw shell casing around the parking lot, but again, no one was hit."
KC: After finding everyone alright, what happened next? Did you all go ahead and proceed with the burial plans of Mr. Williams?
Pastor Shelton: "No we didn't. I read his last rites and committed the body here. We ended the service right there in the parking lot and sent the body on to be buried. I changed the plans after the shooting. My staff then did an excellent job of locking the church down. We then administered further of the people that were left behind. We gave them water and prayed with them."
KC: Looking back, what would you change? Have you now been forced to watch closely on the funerals you perform, or not perform any that may look to be trouble at face value? What I'm saying is, has this incident made sure that Promise Land Church stays within the four walls of this building...?
Pastor Shelton: "Absolutely not! I believe that the church should operate outside the four walls of the church. The news only focuses on the bad and you rarely see the good that most church's do. We're very busy in the community. We take kids on youth trips. We feed people over here and we baptize 40 to 50 people a year. Another 100 or so a year give their life to Christ from this very community. I've also got about 70 third-graders heading to the fourth grade over here at our school, and no one cares about that.
We have one degenerate shooting and here comes all five of the news channels wanting me to do a press conference. So what can we do? What I want you to know is that for every person that was involved in this service and the shooting I want them to know that I love them. I want to pray with each and every one of them.
And to answer your question again, I say absolutely not, will we never stop being a blessing to this community. If we have to do it all over again, we will and we will still have safety first and do it all even better.