Detroit church honors life of 3 slain parishioners

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The Sunday service at Citadel of Praise was more celebratory than mournful, in honor of Deacon Raphael Hall and two other church members, Kristen Thomas and Cierra Bargaineer, all cut down by a gas station shooter on Detroit’s west side last Monday.

When he heard the news of the deaths, including that of Ja-Mon Thomas, who was killed at a home by the same gunman later that morning, Pastor Spencer Ellis said “felt under qualified to be a pastor” he told the congregation Sunday.

“The worst thing you can do, in a situation like this, is just find something to say,” Ellis said in his sermon, after spending the better part of the last week consoling a grieving congregation.

“People ask ‘Why would God allow this?’ I wish I was that close with God.”

It was about 9:30 a.m. Monday when Ellis got the call: Hall and other parishioners had been killed at the gas station.

At first he didn’t want to believe it, and told his secretary at the Citadel of Praise, a congregation approaching its 13th anniversary on the west side, to make absolutely sure. News reports said a “well-known Brightmoor pastor” had been killed. That led some in the church community to think it was Ellis who’d been shot.

Then the phone rang again: That’s when he learned Hall, 60, was among the victims, including Hall’s daughter, Bargaineer, 24, and another member of the church, Kristin Thomas, 21. George Anthony Davis, 27, the gunman, would kill himself later that day in Ohio, with law enforcement searching for him.

Ellis soon arrived at the scene, but had no words, he said Sunday. All he could offer Hall’s wife and other faithful who showed up, he said, was a “ministry of presence.”

‘The brothers need to step up’

Sunday’s service was the first since the three members were killed.

Hall, Bargaineer and Kristen Thomas were together in Hall’s Dodge Journey when Davis approached Monday morning, about 8:40 a.m. at the Sunoco on the 2200 block of Fenkell. Hall was pumping gas when Davis approached, engaged him in conversation, then pulled out a handgun and started firing.

Raphael Hall, 60, his daughter, Cierra Bargaineer, 24, center, and Kristin Thomas, 21.

Police Chief James Craig said Davis “went back to his car, reloaded, and shot them again to make sure they were dead.”

Davis is the father of a child with Bargaineer.

Hall first got Ellis’ attention years ago, fellow deacons say, by sitting up front and showing great enthusiasm. He mentioned his previous experience as a deacon and told church leaders that he was looking for a new church. He found it at the Citadel and was to officially become a deacon in June, Ellis said. That’s in addition to his service as an usher, in the food ministry, in the street outreach ministry, even in fill-in duty shoveling snow when needed. That multiplicity of talents led Ellis to call Hall “Mr. Do Everything.”

After a heavy snowfall left 8 inches on the ground, Hall arrived at the Citadel on a Saturday to find a contracted crew doing snow removal. The church’s property, north of Schoolcraft and west of Evergreen, is large, and both the sidewalks and the street needed to be cleared. Hall was happy to do it, was “half-offended” that other hands had been hired, and urged Ellis to ask and expect more of him and his fellow deacons.

“The brothers need to step up,” Hall urged Ellis.

‘When it ain’t looking too good’

Several times during the service on Sunday, Ellis would start talking about a Bible verse, for instance Isaiah 40:31, and the congregation would finish it, even before the text appeared on two jumbo screens.

“Say what you want about church folk,” Ellis said. “Some people say we’re judgmental. Some people say we’re hypocritical. But we come together in crisis.”

The message, titled “When it ain’t looking too good,” was culled from Mark 5. A synagogue leader, Jairus, had a daughter who become sick, and he asks for Jesus’ healing. But on the way to meet Jairus’ daughter, a woman “who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years” touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. This brought the healing she had sought, but also delayed the walk to Jairus’ daughter, as Jesus “realized that power had gone out from him,” and asked who had touched him — another delay.

PastorSpencer T. Ellis leads his congregation at the Citadel of Praise on Sunday as he and the congregation remember three parishioners fatally shot last week at a gas station.

In the end, Jesus told her, it wasn’t touching his clothes that made the difference, but her faith.

God, Ellis explained, is not a genie who only grants wishes, he is a savior who comforts people at their worst moments.

“You still better bring Jesus in your house,” he told the congregation of about 500, at the second of three services Sunday. “We praise God for what he has done, but we worship him for who he is.”

Had Hall been at church Sunday, fellow deacons said, in his familiar spot along the right wall of the sanctuary, he would have been smiling, shaking hands, greeting everyone who crossed his path — including fellow deacons, who seemed to get a handshake every time they were in his vicinity — helping people find their seats, and putting first-time guests at ease.

“He was a deacon’s deacon,” said Darnell Boynton, himself a deacon. “He was a true servant.”

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey calls Greater Grace Temple, led by Ellis’ older brother, Charles, her church home but also fellowships with the Citadel of Praise, she said, splitting time between the two. On Sunday, she chose to be at the Citadel.

“I just needed to be around some of that support,” Winfrey said. “It hurt real, real bad. I was so angry Monday. Every time the church doors open, he was here. It’s senseless, what’s going on in this town. I need to be around the saints who knew and loved him.”