Sense of greater purpose, unity has grown in wake of Bishop Sannar's killing

Published: Monday, Jan. 3 2011 6:00 a.m. MST

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.

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