Editor's note: Journalist Cathy Carmode Lim, a member of the Visalia 2nd Ward, was asked by the Deseret News to recount how church members there have coped with the tragic shooting of Bishop Clay Sannar.
VISALIA, Calif. — Members of the Visalia 2nd Ward have been known to say, "Once a second warder, always a second warder."
It's a warm, friendly ward that just feels like home. But the events of four months ago have brought a tight-knit group even closer and created a place that feels sacred.
On Aug. 29, 2010, Bishop Clay Sannar, 40, a devoted husband and father of six boys, was shot to death at the ward building after church services by a man who came in looking for the ward's leader. Kenneth Ward, 47, was said to be mentally ill. He was shot to death by police not long after he called them to identify himself as the gunman.
As with any death, especially a tragic, sudden one, ward members were in shock. It just didn't seem possible that this young man who had so recently been called as bishop would be taken from his family and his ward.
But even in our shock, we all pulled together.
Phone calls were made. People gathered at the ward building within hours. Everyone wanted to know what they could do to support the Sannar family.
The funeral, held at the Visalia stake center, was packed with friends, family and visitors from the community. The ward choir, seated on the stand, encompassed easily a fifth of the ward's membership. Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the Presidency of the Seventy spoke at the funeral and read a letter sent by the First Presidency.
As time has passed and the shock has worn off and led to acceptance and quiet mourning, ward members have looked to each other for support and have especially taken the Sannar family under their wings.
Mike Hagman was called as bishop three weeks after Bishop Sannar's death. His wife, Chris, is from the same town as both Clay and Julie Sannar, and the Hagmans have been able to serve with the Sannars for years both in that town and in Visalia.
Bishop Hagman said he was impressed by a number of things in those first few weeks, including the speed of his call.
"The First Presidency approved (his call as bishop) in a couple of hours," he said. "That they were concerned enough about a small little town that far away from Utah to take the time and approve a name based on the recommendation of the stake president was really inspiring to me."
Said Chris Hagman, "(Visalia Stake President Zackary) Smith had said that the general authorities asked first off, 'Who's with the children? How is the family doing?' Their first questions were all focused on the family. Keep in contact with that family. They were so concerned about the personal part of that. President Smith said that was really inspiring to him because there was such a focus on them."
Bishop Hagman and other ward leaders point to a number of ways the ward has grown together in the past months. Attendance has gone up, but more importantly, people have reached out to each other in countless ways. Service to the Sannars has included meals, which Relief Society sisters take to the family twice a week.
Bishop Hagman pointed out that the community has also gotten involved. The PTA of the school the Sannar children attend has also provided meals twice a week.
Julie and Clay Sannar's youngest son was born in April, and, like all mothers of babies, Julie must take her youngest out of meetings frequently. She's not infrequently accompanied by her toddler, as well. She is often followed by a number of sisters in the ward who help her with the baby or the toddler, or assisted by others who watch over the older boys. Many ward members seem very aware and are available to help.
Ward members want to be as sensitive as possible given a difficult situation. Bishop Hagman said that shortly after he was called as bishop, he had at least 10 people approach him, asking, "What do I do? What do I say?" He talked to people who had lost loved ones and then discussed it in a sacrament meeting.
Relief Society president Ana Holmes has noticed the increased closeness of sisters in the ward, as well. She said she has noticed less of particular groups always sitting together and more dissolving of boundaries. She has received phone calls from people checking up on those who have missed church. "I didn't see this person. Do you know what's going on? Is it OK if I visit them?
"It was a good surprise to hear people do that, ask about other people," she said.
Ward members feel a greater sense of purpose in addition to unity. Ward council meetings have focused on missionary work. Members have mentioned that non-member friends have asked about the church since the shooting.
"One sister talked about it in testimony meeting," Chris Hagman said. "She said she'd never pass up another opportunity again (to share the gospel). The week after, in Relief Society, several sisters were talking about how they had had people approach them and want to know what we believe, and they were surprised how well we were dealing with it and wanted to know if it had to do with our beliefs."
"I thought back to (President Henry B.) Eyring's talk in our stake (about five years ago), where he said we're here for a purpose," Bishop Hagman said. "My thought is, if Heavenly Father were to take someone that important from a ward and from a family, there must be a lot of purpose to it. It must be pretty important. It affected thousands of people in our community. People's lives were touched."
The building itself feels special, emphasized Roy Angel, a counselor to both Bishop Sannar and Bishop Hagman. He said he met with young women who had witnessed the tragedy and their mothers the Saturday after the shooting "because they were really struggling with coming back into the building."
"We had a real spiritual experience walking into the building, sharing about the building, relating stories (from the funeral) from President Smith how Gettysburg had become hallowed ground, how the building had become hallowed ground because a martyr had died there," Angel said. "The girls were really hesitant to go in, but as soon as we went in, you could just see their spirits lifted. It went from a lot of hesitation and fear to by the end of it they didn't want to leave the building. I have seen with the youth, it seemed that Mutual before that day was just kind of going through the motions. Now, when the kids come into that building, there's a real kinship and a bond. We have a real hard time getting the kids out of the building."
Angel hopes people "focus on the fact that (Bishop Sannar) died as a hero.
"His whole effort after (Ward) brandished his gun was to get people out of harm's way, at sacrifice to himself," Angel said. "I think because of that, that building and the ward will always be a special place in people's hearts and minds."
Cathy Carmode Lim is the founder of RatedReads.com and a member of the Visalia, Calif., 2nd Ward.