Texas Gov. Ann Richards made a surprise appearance Tuesday at Waco’s Central Presbyterian Church for an ecumenical service dedicated to Monday’s tragedy at Mount Carmel.
Removing their hats as they entered between prayers, several aides guided Richards through the church’s front doors and into a pew, prompting whispers from the Waco residents and journalists gathered in the sanctuary.
After a brief pause, the service continued with the Rev. Eric Hooker delivering a welcoming prayer amid the noise of camera shutters as photographers scrambled for shots of the governor.
A native Central Texan and a graduate of Waco High School, Richards said she felt that she needed to be in Waco.
“These (Waco residents) are good, hard-working people close to the soil,” she told reporters after the service. “This whole ordeal has been hard for everyone to watch, particularly the people in this community.”
The Rev. George Holland, pastor of Central Presbyterian, said that although he did not know the governor planned to attend the service, her appearance did not particularly surprise him.
“That’s kind of like her,” Holland said. “She’s a very compassionate lady and always shows her concern.”
Another visitor at the service was Mark Bunds, a former Branch Davidian who sat with his wife in the back of the sanctuary.
The half-brother of Robyn Bunds, a former wife of Davidian leader Vernon Howell, Mark Bunds spoke quietly with a reporter after the service, condemning the FBI for its actions on Monday and then leaving quickly.
Bunds said he had been excommunicated from the group after falling out of favor with Howell, also known as David Koresh.
When asked why so many cult members chose to stay in the compound until the end, Bunds answered without hesitating.
“It’s not necessarily David Koresh,” he said. “It’s the power of the whole message.”
Before and after the brief service, the scene at the church became a free-for-all as dozens of journalists milled about seeking interviews.
Some at the service said the media activity was a distraction.
“My personal feeling is that the media made it into a service for themselves,” said the Rabbi Norman Klein of Waco’s Temple Rodef Sholom, who gave a reading of the Bible’s Psalm 36. “It would have better served the interests of the people who came if the media had been excluded.”
More than 100 Waco residents attended the service, Holland estimated.
“I’d really hoped for a larger turnout, but we didn’t have that much advance notice,” he said. “This gets the healing process under way.”
Other speakers at the service included Waco Mayor Bob Sheehy, the Rev. Barry Click of Waco’s Ministerial Alliance and Jo Pendleton, director of Waco Habitat for Humanity.
Sheehy called Monday’s turn of events “totally inconceivable beyond shocking.”
“Who would have dreamed, some 53 or 54 days ago, that we would be here now?” he asked.
Most of the concern in the sanctuary focused on the fate of the children presumed lost in the fire that consumed Mount Carmel.
“We must remember our children and how much they need us to take care of them,” Richards said after the service.
Asked how long it might take Waco to recover from the siege and the disaster that brought it to an end, Richards recalled the reaction to the tornado that swept through the city in 1953.
“It took us a long time to recover, and it will take Waco a time to recover from this,” she said.