‘Death does not own this place’: Pastor at Ames church recounts deadly shooting in sermon
The students and elders who ran to the parking lot where Eden Montang and Vivian Flores were shot Thursday evening at Cornerstone Church knew they were gone as soon as they saw them, the church’s lead pastor told members at Sunday's service.
But one of their fellow students at Iowa State University provided chest compressions in a desperate effort to defy death, the Rev. Mark Vance said.
Back inside the church, leaders told 80 to 100 churchgoers who had gathered for an elders meeting and a youth ministry event that three people — including the gunman, who sheriff's officials said shot himself — had just died outside. Members knelt and prayed as law enforcement officers gathered statements from witnesses.
Like the student who tried to save the women, Vance, in his first Sunday sermon since the tragedy, sounded a defiant note as he told about 500 churchgoers “death does not own this place. It never has and it never will.” It was a message similar to one he delivered in a prayer service Friday.
Churchgoers at Cornerstone have been in mourning since Montang, 22, and Flores, 21, died as they planned to attend their first summer service for Salt Company, a Cornerstone program for college students.
Johnathan Lee Whitlatch, 33, Montang’s ex-boyfriend, gunned them down with a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol before turning the weapon on himself, Story County sheriff’s officials said. A third woman with Montang and Flores, who has not been identified, was unhurt.
Speaking in a nearly full auditorium Sunday, Vance said the shootings were the most devastating moment of his own life and that of the church, but that the congregation needs to “worship our way through it.”
Crying, he said, “Hold us now, Christ. We have nowhere to run but to you.”
Vance said both women loved Jesus and that, in conversations this week with Montang's family, he learned she would have slept at the church if allowed.
Vance said he hates that the shootings happened at a place of worship he described as “one of the happiest places on Earth.” But for all who were there, he said, June 2, 2022, will mark their lives forever, “a moment of trauma you’ll never forget."
Church members raised their hands in worship, some wiping away tears, as they sang “Man of Sorrows” and “Blood and Tears,” led by musicians on stage.
Among those attending was Jack Chism, 19, an ISU freshman, who said he had meant to attend the Thursday Salt Company gathering but missed it because he was running late.
He said the sermon Vance gave Sunday, citing Jesus as “a wounded healer for wounded people,” gave him hope.
“Even though we have scars, Jesus saves us. We’ll get through this.”
Also at the service were Ian Muindi, Trinity Vorn and Nic Worsham, all Iowa State students on summer break.
“We’ve kind of grown up with this. We’ve lived through a pandemic and seen how people have become desensitized and shootings have become much more common,” Worsham said.
“It becomes unreal,” Vorn said. “But then something like this happens, so close, and it makes it real again.”
Vorn, 20, said she’s been thinking the shootings could have happened to her or any of her friends.
Whitlatch and Montang, both Iowa National Guard members in the same Boone-based detachment, had gone through a recent breakup and Whitlatch was facing a trial in July for an unrelated alleged sexual assault at a Cedar Falls bar. He also had been arrested May 31 on charges of impersonating a public official and harassment in connection with calls he made to the Ames massage studio where Montang worked.
He’d purchased 9 mm ammunition shortly before the shooting, and detectives also found an AR-15 rifle at his home, sheriff’s officials said.
Montang, of Boone, was a senior in the College of Human Sciences, and Flores, of West Des Moines, was a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Services for both Montang and Flores are scheduled to be held at the church this week. Montang's will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday, preceded by a 12:30 p.m. meal and visitation. Flores' will be at 2 p.m. Thursday, preceded by a 10 a.m. visitation.
Vance, in an email to the Des Moines Register, said both will be open to the public.
Montang, who went to Boone High School and studied sign language at Iowa State, had served in the National Guard since August in a detachment where Whitlatch was a sergeant.
She was the daughter of Terry and Mia Montang of Boone. Her family, in a statement released by the church, described her as "unique and gifted in her ability to be both strong and tender, creative and conservative and was unmatched in her generosity and empathy."
They said she was "a daughter, sister, aunt and a dedicated Christian woman that loved learning about the love and wonders of our Heavenly Father. She was unrelenting in her values and strong sense of right and wrong. She was intellectually gifted, articulate and confident. In less than 20 minutes, she could do farm chores and write a poem all while drinking a glass of wine."
"Eden was a beautiful garden that we were lucky enough to watch grow."
Flores, who wanted to become a veterinarian, was a graduate of West Des Moines' Valley High School and daughter of Reyna Arvizo. She was described as "full of energy and vivaciousness" and "driven, kind and giving” in an obituary posted Saturday.
In the statement released by the church, her family described her as "one of the good ones. A devout Christian, lover of music and dancing, beloved daughter, sister and friend. She was the life of the party. Strong willed and determined, ambitious and kind."
This article has been edited to correct Eden Montang's first name.