Church lay leader slain in Florida bank shooting

Other Manual Translations: español

The United Methodist community in central Florida is mourning a beloved church leader senselessly slain at a bank in Highlands County.

Marisol Lopez, 55, a dedicated and active member of Nuevo Pacto United Methodist Church in Sebring, Florida, was shot to death along with four others at about 12:30 p.m. Jan. 23 at the SunTrust Bank branch on U.S. Route 27.

Lopez worked as a teller at the Sebring bank.

“There’s no way to make sense out of this,” said the Rev. Rinaldo Hernandez, superintendent of the South West district in the denomination’s Florida Conference, as he drove from Sarasota, Florida, to Sebring to comfort the family. “In these types of situations, we can only turn to God.”

The shooter, Zephen A. Xaver, 21, never asked for money inside the bank, Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said.

“We suffered significant loss at the hands of a senseless criminal doing a senseless crime,” Hoglund told The Associated Press.

Xaver barricaded himself inside the bank, only surrendering after an armored police vehicle rammed through the door two hours after the shootings in an attempt to reach the victims, reported The New York Times. The five victims, all women, had already died by that time.

Marisol and  Victor Lopez. Photo courtesy of Facebook remembrance page.

Marisol and  Victor Lopez.
Photo courtesy of Facebook memorial page

Lopez was a trusted friend at the church and in the community, said people who knew her.

“She was the person everybody counted on,” said the Rev. Luz Maldonado, pastor of Nuevo Pacto and a close friend to Lopez.

“She was a Sunday school teacher for the kids for many, many years,” Maldonado said. “She was one of the principal singers in the praise band. She was a leader with the ladies of the church, with everybody. She was the kind of person that always has hope. She was always happy.”

In addition to Lopez, the victims include bank customer Cynthia Watson, 65; bank employee Ana Piñon-Williams, 38; and two other women. Families of the unidentified victims asked that their names be withheld from the public, Hoglund told NPR.

“Perhaps most unfortunate is that now we refer to them as victims of a senseless crime,” Hoglund told NPR.

Lopez was remembered at a candlelight vigil Jan. 24 at Nuevo Pacto United Methodist Church. The Rev. Esther Rodriguez, pastor at Spring of Life United Methodist Church in Orlando, Florida, remembered Lopez as her Sunday school teacher when she was a child.

“It’s very hard,” Rodriguez told USA Today. “I am a pastor because of a person like Marisol.”

A native of Puerto Rico, Lopez was a longtime fixture at SunTrust Bank.

“Marisol Lopez was a teller at the SunTrust branch where I bank,” said the Rev. J. David Juliano, pastor of First Sebring Church. “She knew I was a Methodist pastor … She would always tell me what Pastor Luz was doing, how things were going at her church and ask about mine. She was a leader in her congregation, a kind and gentle person with a servant's heart.”

Hernandez remembered Lopez as a committed church member notable for her way with children and her “beautiful, beautiful voice” while singing with the praise band.

“Her faith wasn’t superficial,” Hernandez said. “She was very immersed in that experience.”

Her survivors include her husband Victor Lopez, 55, daughter Kiara Lopez, 21, and son Victor Lopez III, 23.

Another candlelight vigil is set for 6 p.m. Jan. 27 at Fireman’s Field in Sebring. The funeral was scheduled for noon Feb. 2 at St. John United Methodist Church in Sebring. Lopez will be buried Feb. 7 in her family plot in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, after a memorial service the previous day, Maldonado said.

Michelle Maldonado, the daughter of the Rev. Luz Maldonado and director of seeker advertising and communications (Rethink Church) at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, said she grew up with Lopez and her family at their church.

“She was the kindest person ever,” Michelle Maldonado said. “When your family is far away, the church family becomes your family.”

Patterson is a United Methodist News Service reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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