Wheaton reeling from toddler death
Claude and Sherry Hankins said they closed on a house here on Thursday. That night, their 14-month-old daughter, Aundrea Brownlow, died after being struck by a baseball bat during a prayer service at their church.
"For the best day of your life to be the worst day," Sherry Hankins said in an interview Saturday at Thy Kingdom Come World Ministry building on Highway 75.
"I don't know how to do this," Sherry said, crying. "I know how to be a mom. How do you be the mom who lost her baby?"
Brownlow was struck during an altercation between Claude Hankins and David Collins, a fellow church member, over a used washer and dryer.
Collins was arrested, as well as Darryl Kennedy, who arrived at the church armed with a 2-by-4 board. Both are facing second-degree assault charges. A police department spokeswoman said further charges would be filed Tuesday after more investigation.
Meanwhile, the community of nearly 1,500 is reeling from the death of a child, a tragedy many say they saw coming.
Claude and Sherry Hankins said they're struggling with the fact that their daughter's fatal blow was dealt in a sanctuary, where their daughter should have been safe. Sherry attends Bible study with the wives of the accused men. On Saturday, one of those wives wrapped her arm around Sherry's shoulder at the church.
They said the church's pastor, the Rev. Danny Barnes, whom they call "bishop," has been extremely supportive. Barnes said Saturday that the church will overcome the tragic loss and grow.
In the local café and convenience stores, people keep saying something needs to be done about the church - and Barnes.
"The town is very angry," said Jenny Edwards, a clerk at Mark's Convenience Store in Wheaton. "This should have been taken care of a while ago.
"This town has had nothing but trouble with Barnes since he came."
Ripe for trouble?
Thy Kingdom Come has long been controversial in Wheaton, partly due to Barnes' extensive criminal history and his recent run-ins with law enforcement.
Wheaton police have responded to "numerous" complaints at the ministry building, a police spokeswoman said.
In July, Barnes pleaded not guilty in neighboring Big Stone County District Court to charges of kidnapping, first-degree burglary, second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon and third-degree assault resulting in substantial bodily harm.
"A lot of people's opinion was something bad was going to happen eventually," said Todd Amborn, a Wheaton resident for more than 20 years. "I think there's a lot of people who want to see him go away."
Amborn said it is simply a bad situation for alcohol and drug addicts to be mingling so closely with children.
Julie Straw feels similarly. "It's ridiculous that two grown adults can carry on that way and look who suffers? The innocent child," said Straw, owner of the Country Corner Café on Broadway in Wheaton.
"I think the whole town is quite shocked at what happened, with her being only 14 months old and the people at this church are 'reformed' or whatever and they act like this," she said. "They've come up against a lot of opposition here. The police seem to be getting a workout with members of this church."
After Angie Cannon-Holle heard about Thursday's incident, she got together with her pastor and his wife, and they prayed that Barnes' ministry would end. Cannon-Holle said she was one of the first members of Barnes' church. Her family left after just over a year.
"I've got a daughter the same age. Your heart just breaks for the family and the mother, and you picture yourself in the situation and how easy it is for something to happen," she said. "I've been saying for months somebody is going to end up dead."
She feels Barnes is indirectly responsible for Aundrea Brownlow's death for not better supervising the people he brings into town.
"It's one thing if they're going to kill each other, grown up and grown up. But I knew it would be somebody innocent," she said.
Several people interviewed by The Forum said Barnes has labeled his detractors as racist, which they deny.
"It's not a white/black issue," Amborn said, "These people need help, and he's not qualified to give them the help they need."
Defending the ministry
Barnes, who has described himself as a career criminal who was saved, moved to Wheaton and started the church in 2004.
The nondenominational ministry reaches out to marginalized populations, such as substance abusers and the homeless. Barnes brings alcohol and drug addicts to the town to attend his faith-based treatment.
In a 2007 article in The Forum, Barnes said he had been treated unfairly in Wheaton because of his race and had been assaulted numerous times.
He said Saturday that he is upset by how many bad things have been said and written about a ministry he said is so good.
Barnes said 70 people are registered with the ministry, and 25 to 30 people attend regular services.
Saturday, he manned two griddles in the church building's kitchen, making beef and chicken crepes for the half-dozen church members gathered in the dining room.
Sherry Hankins said she came to Wheaton about a year and a half ago. She was pregnant and homeless and said it was a leap of faith to move to the town with the church.
Claude Hankins said he's lived in Wheaton for about eight months. The couple started living together in February and got married last month.
The ministry has "done great things for us," Sherry Hankins said.
George Wiley joined the church last year. He was in the building Thursday when the altercation took place and tried to stop Collins.
Wiley said it's a "tragic, horrible situation, and it's not one you can really place blame on except for the person who did it.
"It shouldn't have happened, but there wasn't much we could have done to prevent it. The wheels were in motion, the actors were in place."
Barnes, who was out of town Thursday, also said there was nothing he could have done differently to prevent Aundrea's death.
"It was a tragedy and accident that we believe we're going to overcome," Barnes said, "and we're going to grow."
He also said he wishes people wouldn't differentiate tragedies that happen at churches from those that happen elsewhere.
"When something like this happens at a school, they don't stop sending their children to school," Barnes said. "When things like this happen in a church, people want to blame God or blame the church."
The funeral for Aundrea Brownlow will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Thy Kingdom Come Church.
Claude Hankins said he wants justice for Aundrea.
Sherry Hankins said she hopes someone can learn a lesson from her daughter's death. According to Barnes, Collins had been drinking.
"You see stuff all the time. People just lost in stupidity, now a little girl's gone. I hope she causes someone to stop drinking," she said.
"Just do something right by yourself," Claude Hankins said.