Gilpin uses lessons learned in terrorist attack to help others

Scott Gilpin (center) stands with Red Cross workers with whom he volunteered in the days following the Westgate Mall massacre in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Scott Gilpin.
Scott Gilpin (center) stands with Red Cross workers with whom he volunteered in the days following the Westgate Mall massacre in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Scott Gilpin.

Scott Gilpin, whose home church is First United Methodist Church in Brenham, Texas, is an #amazingUMChero

If we all could be as inadequate as Scott Gilpin, our world would be a much better place.

To be clear, Gilpin, whose home church is First United Methodist Church at Brenham, Texas, is far from inadequate, no matter how much he feels he is. Truth is, his elevated perspective on life gives him a deeper understanding than most of us will ever achieve.

That perspective came to focus on the day he bore witness to a remarkable display of humanity on the very fringes of enduring an unimaginable show of brutal terrorist activity. It was on that day that Gilpin, who had stopped by Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, for a quick errand, watched as terrorists jumped from a car and opened fire in front of him, gunning down a security guard at the shopping center’s entrance in the opening moments of the massacre.

Within seconds, the sound of AK-47 gunfire and grenades exploded around him as Westgate Mall fell under siege, eventually leaving more than 240 people dead or injured.

As Gilpin surveyed the scene unfolding in front of him, a mother with two young children ran toward him. Gilpin picked up one of the children and the small group began making its way across the parking lot, gaining three men along the route as bullets were being fired all around. Thirty-five minutes later, Gilpin had led the group to the safety of a nearby Hindu center.

The life-altering episode outside Westgate Mall in September of 2013 led to a stunning revelation for this now 62-year-old “United Methodist preacher’s kid” from Texas who says that these days he listens more closely — and more thoroughly than ever -- to God’s responses to prayer.

Looking back on the terrorist attack, he vividly recalls reaching safety at Kenya’s Oshwal Indian Cultural Center — a large educational campus guarded by Hindu militia — and feeling led by God to offer a prayer of thanksgiving, as well as praying for the victims, with a group of strangers who’d been haphazardly tossed together amid chaos.

“What I know about praying is that we often quit listening to God when we get what we want, whether it’s deliverance or another form of help,” Gilpin said.

But that day Gilpin listened, and he’ll never be the same.

“In that quiet response from God, there was a strong, compelling feeling that I was meant to stay in Nairobi,” he said. “I felt like I was to cancel my flight home and work with others helping in the crisis.

“I think what God was telling me was, ‘You have the ability to help other people at a time when they need it, and you’re going to need that additional focus to counterbalance what you just experienced.’”

For the next four days, Gilpin assisted at a Red Cross blood-collection center about a mile from the mall, a move that he says put back into perspective why he was there in the first place.

“I am so glad I did that,” he says. “It literally saved my sanity, if not my life.”

Thousands waited in line for hours to give blood, because, Gilpin said “they wanted to do something and giving blood was one of the few things they could do and one of the few things they had to give.”

“Seeing the remarkable display of humanity as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Somalians and Kenyans, in our collective grief and outrage, stood together, counterbalanced the horror that I was exposed to at Westgate Mall,” he said. “Seeing the first people murdered is something with which I live every day of my life, but my resolve to help others is stronger than ever.”

Dr. Stephen Hendricks, executive director of the Leadership, Education & Development Regional Hub in South Africa of The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education & Ministry, has witnessed firsthand Gilpin’s selflessness as the two have worked together in Africa in recent years.

“The extent to which Scott is prepared to go back to areas in the world which for others may be a no-go area ... shows that his purpose in life is to assist others at all costs,” Hendricks says.

Gilpin’s work, currently as executive director of the Wesley College Foundation in Mwanza, Tanzania, and as leader of The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry's Global Development and Fundraising Resource Team, means Gilpin spends much time outside of the United States and, particularly, on the continent of Africa.

Hendricks says Gilpin is making a big impact through numerous projects serving people in the area with “a very critical communication and education tool for capacity building and for community development.”

Gilpin admits he is still healing from the Westgate Mall massacre, doing his best to understand his role in all of this.

“Every day I wake up saying ‘Why did I live when so many around me died?’ and ‘Could I have done more to save more people?’ ” Gilpin says. “And those two questions are really difficult when you pair them with the mental pictures of the murder of the people around you.”

Consequently, he says he begins every morning with a two-part prayer.

“And it literally starts like this: ‘God, are you kidding? As inadequate as I am, I get to do what I’m called to do? Well, thank you for prevenient grace. And that being the case ... please help me positively impact somebody’s life today.

“All of us have Westgate Malls in our lives,” he continues. “We all have these tremendously painful things in our journey that we have to work through. And how we use God’s gifts to benefit others on their journeys as they struggle, that’s the reason we exist.”

So, who’s feeling inadequate now?

Read about more #AmazingUMCHeroes.

*Craig Flagg is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Media contact at United Methodist Communications is Crystal Caviness at 615-742-5138.