Two years ago, the Rev. Joseph Larson confronted crisis.

He was pastor of the Killeen First United Methodist Church when a member of the congregation, Ruth M. Pujol, died from bullet wounds in the shooting spree at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen.

It wasn’t the first or last of his brushes with tragedy and depression.

Larson and his wife, Aleta, later moved to Woodway, when he became pastor of the Woodway First United Methodist Church. Within a year he found himself addressing feelings about the 51-day standoff and fiery ending at Mount Carmel.

“Our friends say, ‘Don’t move to our town,’” he says jokingly.

The pastor moved to Killeen in 1989 from Georgetown. His associate degree in vocational agriculture, bachelor’s in history, master’s in theology and doctorate in ecumenical relations did not completely prepare him for what was to come.

Forty-two members of his congregation were shipped overseas to Saudi Arabia during the buildup and armed conflict that became the Persian Gulf War.

Church members packed boxes with clothespins, clotheslines, batteries and cookies for the troops overseas. Larson began weekly counseling sessions for wives of the departed soldiers.

The war was over and most of the troops were home when on Oct. 16, 1991, George Hennard went on a shooting rampage in a crowded cafeteria in Killeen, killing 23 people and wounding many others.

Larson said he’d studied pastoral care and read books about crisis intervention. In that situation, he just did the best he could at the time.

“You just have to play it by the seat of your pants and by the grace around you are losing theirs. You try to bring them back to reality.”

Having dealt with tremendous fears and sorrows, Larson said he now feels more comfortable handling crisis.

“What I attempt to do is get the other person talking,” he said. “You’re doing the most good by being there and listening.”

Besides Pujol, several other church members were in the Killeen cafeteria at the time of the shootings.

“There were three or four in the take-out room,” he said. “One lady had a lot of problems with that.”

The pastor himself did not escape the tragedy’s aftereffects.

“For a long time after that, when we’d go to a cafeteria, it was scary,” he said.

His daughter, Cindy Green, and her husband, Rod, often take the Larsons to eat at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Fort Worth with the exact same building design as the Killeen restaurant. Eating there can be a little unsettling, he said.

The year after the Killeen shootings, he became pastor of the Woodway church. There he watched as events at Mount Carmel unfolded.

“I was more prepared for a crisis situation,” he said.

Like most people in the area, people at his church did not have the direct connection to the Davidians that people had to the Luby’s victims.

But he said the young people in the church had questions, including ones about the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

He said his Woodway congregation handled the situation pretty well.

“No one wanted it to end the way it did, though it lasted long enough,” Larson said.

While counseling in Killeen, he was asked why the massacre happened where and when it did, and why it happened at all.

“These things are going to happen because you never know what a person is thinking,” he said. “I attempted to preach on, ‘There’s no way to understand it.’”

And these types of events seem to be happening more often in our fast-paced, high-stressed society, he said.

“The people feel a great need to succeed and be accepted and if not, that can deteriorate to adverse behavior,” he said.

The minister did feel exhausted after the Killeen ordeal. It was not a physical exhaustion because he hadn’t been that active at the time. His emotions had worn him down physically.

“I don’t even know how you can describe how you feel,” he said. “Those things happen. You try to resolve them the best you can.”

Larson said his “practical faith” gets him through.

He said these tragedies are more “coincidental, rather than providence.”


Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.