TEMPLE TERRACE — Several worshippers gasped at Temple Terrace United Methodist Church on Sunday morning when they realized who Patina Ripkey was talking about.
The church’s worship leader, Ripkey said that God spoke to her a few years ago when she was ruminating on whether or not all people are deserving of God’s love, no matter what sins they’ve committed. Ripkey said that she thought of “the most heinous” criminal she could think of, someone who had done “the unthinkable.”
That’s when God told her that even Julie Schenecker, convicted last week of killing her two children, 16-year-old daughter Calyx and 13-year-old son Beau, was worthy of God’s forgiveness.
There was a short pause after Ripkey mentioned Schenecker’s name in church. It took a Tampa jury less than three hours Thursday to convict Schenecker of shooting to death her children in January 2011, while her then-husband, U.S. Army Col. Parker Schenecker was serving in Afghanistan.
Ripkey revealed that she wrote a letter to Julie Schenecker shortly after her 2011 arrest.
At first, “I didn’t feel that she deserved God’s forgiveness,” Ripkey said. “I said that what she did was horrible, but our God is a forgiving God. Jesus cares for those who don’t deserve anything.”
To Ripkey’s surprise, Schenecker wrote back.
“Your thoughts and prayers are greatly appreciated,” Schenecker said in a letter from which Ripkey read Sunday morning.
Schenecker described how she was raised as a Baptist, often attending services multiple times a week. She said that she stopped attending church regularly after her marriage and “did not walk with the Lord.”
“My parents never abandoned me and are now my biggest support,” Schenecker wrote. “I have recognized Christ in my life. I’m in more peace now than I’ve been in a very great time.”
Still, Schenecker wrote: “I cry often, as I am right now.”
After the service, many church members paused to hug Ripkey as they filed out. Some were obviously moved.
“A lot of people were crying,” Ripkey said. “I think it was maybe challenging, but in a good way.”
Church member Donna Stewart said that she found the sermon “touching” and “inspiring.”
At first, Stewart said that she didn’t recognize Schenecker’s name.
“I checked on my phone, and it came right up,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh!’ ”
Stewart said that showing compassion, even for those who commit morally reprehensible acts, is part of being a Christian.
“That is the message, and what we’re here to do,” she said.
Woody Murphy, a church member for about seven years, said that he didn’t immediately recognize Schenecker’s name, either.
Murphy characterized Ripkey’s sermon as “refreshing.”
Afterward, Ripkey said that she has had sporadic correspondence with Schenecker.
“I just sent her another letter” recently, Ripkey said. “I asked her if it’s OK to visit her, but I haven’t heard back yet.”