Sunday the 26th Week of Ordinary Time
(Am 6:1a, 4-7, 1Tm 6:11-16, Lk 16:19-31)
Carrie Phillips grew up about 30 minutes from here near Attica, New York. She was raised Catholic. When she got older she and her sister did trick riding in rodeos. Her brother was also in the rodeo circuit. She eventually fell in love with a bull rider from North Carolina. They were married, got a house near his home, and had two sons, Daylon and Colton. There were plenty of red flags before they got married but Carrie thought she could fix him. He had a drinking problem and a drug problem and was a wife-beater. Instead of things getting better, they got worse. He was a bad influence on the two young boys and Carrie didn’t want them to turn out like him. She got up enough courage to leave him finally, but then he said all the right words and she went back. He was just as controlling and abusive as ever, so she finally got a restraining order and filed for divorce. The court date was set to determine child custody and the division of possessions. During all these turbulent years Carrie found solace in a Baptist church nearby and would take the little boys there. It was a safe haven for them.
On the morning of March 23rd, 2004 Carrie went to work at the staffing service where she was employed. Her parents and sister were in town because the court date was the next day and they wanted to be there to support her. That morning Carrie’s boss said there had been several phone calls where the person would hang up as soon as someone answered it. She asked Carrie, “Do you think it could be him?” And Carrie answered, “I’m not going to worry about it. Tomorrow’s court and we’ll get everything figured out.” Carrie was working at the front desk and soon afterwards he walked in, carrying a rifle he had bought earlier in the day. He kept saying, “Is this what you want? Is this what you want?” Carrie’s only thought was, “Who is going to take care of my kids?” Then he opened fire and got off nine shots. Two of them hit Carrie in the head. One of them grazed the back of her head, but the other entered her left side and broke into 33 pieces in her brain. Then he walked out the door, got in his truck, and hopped on the nearby interstate.
As Carrie tells the story, God had everything worked out ahead of time. Several people in the building called 911 right away. The ambulance was there within two minutes of when she had been shot. Meanwhile, two neighbors from a couple doors down came running immediately and were skilled in trying to stop the blood. The hospital was not far. It was a big trauma center in Ashville. When they got there, another person had been scheduled for neuro-surgery and all the doctors and nurses were assembled and ready to go. They took Carrie instead and postponed the other guy. So, from the ambulance, she was wheeled right into the operating room. As Carrie says, “God had it all planned out; he had everyone where they needed to be.” As soon as the people from her church heard about it they all came to the lobby of the hospital and were praying.
Amazingly, Carrie was only in the hospital a week. They had found out in the Vietnam War that it is better to just leave the bullet pieces in the brain. If you try to take them out it just does more damage. There is a picture on the Internet from that period which shows Carrie in the hospital bed with a bandage on her head and a black eye. Her two little boys, 3 and 4, are wearing big white cowboy hats and look so happy to be with their mommy.
At the time of the shooting, Carrie’s parents and sister were at Carrie’s house with the two boys. The cops showed up looking for the shooter and told them what had happened. Carrie’s parents told her sister to take the boys to a friend’s house and they hurried to the hospital. 4-year-old Daylon grabbed his little brother’s hand and said, “We have to pray for mom.” Eventually, Carrie’s ex pulled off the interstate and checked into a motel. He called his sister and told her what he had done. She called the police and they arrested him there.
On YouTube, there’s an hour-long interview with Carrie on a program called “The Gauge”. That’s where I got all this information. It’s amazing to see her telling her story and acting so normal with 33 pieces of a bullet in her brain. After leaving the hospital she would read little kids’ books to her boys every night. Turns out that’s just what her brain needed to rewire itself. Things were tough, especially financially, but there was always someone there when she needed it. God was being faithful to his servant who was being so faithful to him. Her brother, who is a doctor, suggested she become an RN. So she went back to school and became a nurse. She had to really apply herself because her brain didn’t work as well as it used to. A guy named Sam Swearingen had rodeoed with her brother and had been in her life all along. He would sometimes take her boys to rodeos and they thought the world of him. Carrie and Sam eventually got married and Sam adopted the two boys. So they all have the last name Swearingen now. They live on the same road as us – River Road – two miles to the south. Daylon is 23 now and the reigning world champion bull rider. There are plenty of YouTube videos of him. He’s a real good guy and openly talks about God. Sam is part of the 135-megawatt solar project with us and was at a solar meeting here in Merton Hall this past Tuesday. I used to see him and Carrie at the Town of York solar meetings back when I was going. I never would have dreamed Carrie had such a story to tell.
You may be wondering how this story ties in with our liturgy today. Well, the last verse of our gospel reading says, “Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” In a way, it’s as if Carrie has risen from the dead. She certainly should have been dead! Not too many people survive a rifle shot to the brain that shatters into 33 pieces. Having all those circumstances and people in place so strategically was way more than mere coincidence. Carrie has told her story many times in youth groups and other gatherings. Her faith is a light, and it is enkindling the light of faith in the heart of others.
In our second reading we heard, “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life.” When you watch videos of Carrie and Daylon you see people who embody these qualities. God has put them through the wringer, but he brought them out the other side stronger and more mature for it.
Brethren, let us too compete well for the faith and lay hold of eternal life.