For residents of Austin, Texas, weeks of terror ended Wednesday when Mark Conditt — identified as the serial bomber responsible for killing two people and badly wounding four others — blew himself up.
As reporters began delving into the 23-year-old Conditt's background, religious details — some more concrete than others — quickly emerged.
My thanks to GetReligion reader Deann Alford, a Texas-based journalist and author, who alerted us to crucial facts in an Austin American-Statesman story. The key: The religious questions linked to this story are valid hooks to investigate — right now. But authorities say they see no clues, so far, to motives in these acts.
The Austin newspaper interviewed Jeremiah Jensen, 24, who was homeschooled in the same community as Conditt:
The two were close in 2012 and 2013, said Jensen, who would often go to the Conditts’ home for lunch after Sunday church service and attended Bible study and other activities with him. Jensen said Conditt came from a good family, was athletic, enjoyed rock climbing and parkour and was a “deep thinker.”
“When I met Mark, he was really rough around the edges,” Jensen said. “He was a very assertive person and would … end up being kind of dominant and intimidating in conversation. A lot of people didn’t understand him and where he was coming from. He really just wanted to tell the truth. What I remember about him he would push back on you if you said something without thinking about it. He loved to think and argue and turn things over and figure out what was really going on.”
Jensen said Conditt attended regular church services at the Austin Stone Community Church on St. John’s Avenue.
“I know faith was a serious thing for him,” he said. “I don’t know if he held onto his faith or not. … The kind of anger that he expressed and the kind of hate that he succumbed to — that’s not what he believed in in high school. I don’t know what happened along the way. This wasn’t him.”
A little later in the story, there's this:
The Austin Stone said in a statement it had no records of Conditt or his family’s active involvement in the church or interactions with staff members.
“We love and grieve with our city and we continue to pray for the victims and their families who were affected by these recent tragedies. We are cooperating with law enforcement with any pertinent information we can find that may be of help as they continue their investigation,” the church said in a statement.
In its front-page profile of Conditt today, the Houston Chronicle — like a number of media outlets — notes that the bomber had pondered a church mission trip a few years ago, a fact attributed to his mother's Facebook page.
The Chronicle references his "close-knit, religious family."
More from the Houston paper:
Some neighbors didn’t remember the Conditts’ son, but 75-year-old Jeff Reeb told reporters he was just a “neighborhood kid” from a good family.
“I know that they were church-going people,” he said. “I know that they were extremely good neighbors.”
One woman who home-schooled with Mark Conditt in his early teens said she didn’t see any red flags.
“He seemed like a normal boy,” she said.
In its story on "Who Is Mark Conditt, the Suspected Austin Serial Bomber?" the New York Times immediately references the religion angle:
PFLUGERVILLE, Tex. — The Austin bombing suspect who blew himself up Wednesday in a confrontation with police was an intense loner who grew up in a tight-knit, deeply religious family, according to friends and neighbors.
Later in the story, the Times reports:
Mr. Conditt grew up as the quiet, socially awkward oldest child of a devout Christian family that held Bible study groups in their white clapboard house, where an American flag hangs from the front porch.
After Mr. Conditt, 23, was identified on Wednesday as the serial bomber who killed two people and terrorized Texas’ capital, Mr. Conditt’s mother sent a text message to a friend, Donna Sebastian Harp. It said: “Pray for our family. We are under attack” — a reference to a spiritual assault.
“It’s a Christian-ese thing we say,” Ms. Harp said. “Pray: the situation is very serious.”
I'm not sure what to make of that "Christian-ese thing we say" quote. I mean, the previous paragraph with the explanation that the "under attack" text message is a reference to a spiritual assault seems highly appropriate. It's an important note for readers who might not be familiar with that sort of language from a Christian. But the additional quoted material makes me wonder if the source really had to elaborate on the text's meaning to the Times.
Meanwhile, USA Today quotes the leader of a Texas home-schooling group:
Conditt was home-schooled before studying at Austin Community College from 2010 to 2012. Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition, said in a statement Wednesday that the home schooling community is also in disbelief.
“The staff and team of (the Texas home school coalition) are praying for the families of the Austin bombing victims as well as the Conditt family and their friends, who were shocked to learn that Mark Conditt was behind the bombings," Lambert said.
"Raised by both parents in a Christian home, Conditt reportedly walked away from his faith several years ago," he said. "Today’s revelations about the Austin bombings provide a stark reminder that we live in a fallen world. Unfortunately, no form of education, public or private, can ensure a tragedy like this will never happen."
For some of the most insightful background on the religion angle that I've seen, check out Heavy.com's five fast facts on Conditt and Austin Stone Community Church. The writer, Stephanie Dube Dwilson, is a former information director for Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch in Plano, Texas. I knew her during my time covering religion for The Associated Press in Dallas.
Among Dwilson's fast facts: Austin Stone Community Church draws more than 7,000 worshipers at five campuses each week and is technically a Southern Baptist congregation, even though it's regarded as nondenominational by many.
Heavy.com recounts what the church said before Conditt was identified as the bomber:
The church’s counseling center released the following statement on their website about the bombings, before Conditt was caught: “In the past 2 weeks our beloved city has experienced 5 bombs that have taken 2 lives and injured 5+ others. The locations of the explosions have been in different parts of the city – all residential except for the latest one that went off while in transit at the FedEx facility. Two of the bombs were set in lower-income neighborhoods while the most recent explosion occurred in a middle-class neighborhood in Southwest Austin. There has been speculation as to whether they are coordinated and targeted – a hate crime or something else – but that is still unclear. This leaves residents in a difficult and precarious position. We don’t know what to expect. At this point it seems like a bomb can be placed in any neighborhood in Austin, at any time, leaving no one feeling safe and many experiencing fear and anxiety like never before. No one is immune to this it seems. Personally, with each incident I have found myself having to process new layers of fear. It has caused me to ask questions and imagine scenarios I never would have thought I would be capable of until now. It has led me to ask what can I do?” The website went on to suggest biblical ways to respond, including being watchful and cautious, staying prayerful, staying faithful, and being a light in the darkness by loving the city rather than hiding at home.
But Austin Stone Community Church apparently wasn't the only one Conditt had attended over the years. The Times story quotes a woman who recalls going to a different, now-closed church with the family. Note the reference to this church being racially diverse. That's crucial, in light of early questions about who the bomber may or may not have been attacking:
Pamela Crouch, who home-schools her children in Pflugerville and has known the Conditts for several years, said her family attended a Bible study group at the Conditt home in the early 2000s, when both families belonged to a small evangelical church, Grace, that has since shut down.
Ms. Crouch said the church had an economically and racially diverse congregation. She described the family as “lovely people” and said that Mr. Conditt’s mother did some work outside the home as well as home-school their four children.
Obviously, the full picture of Conditt and his religious background — and what role, if any, that background played in the bomber's reasoning — is still developing.