Saturday, March 25, 2006 | 7:15 a.m.
Metro Police Officer Cheryl Williams had been thinking about going to church for a long time. But it took the death of her police academy buddy to get her through the doors.
During the Feb. 7 memorial service for fallen Metro Sgt. Henry Prendes, Williams was deeply moved by the stories of Prendes' faith and the strength shown by his wife and two daughters. Prendes was gunned down at age 37 by local rap singer Amir Crump during a domestic violence call.
"I could tell that their strength was getting them through this, while I was literally sick to my stomach that my friend isn't here, that he was taken from us," Williams, 36, said. "I said to myself, 'They know something I don't know.' "
Williams decided to become a Christian during the service at Central Christian Church. She couldn't know it, but Prendes' death was having a similar affect on hundreds of others in the church and watching the televised services from home.
Several hundred people indicated during the service that they, too, had decided to investigate Christianity, Central's Senior Pastor Jud Wilhite said. The church's attendance jumped by 1,000 people the following weekend and about 150 have been baptized there in the last six weeks, including Williams. She is now hosting her own Bible study.
Prendes would be overjoyed, said his wife, Dawn Prendes. For every person who comes to know Christ because of Prendes, "his dying was worth it," she said.
Dawn Prendes, 42, said she believes "God walked Henry" up to Crump's door because God knew Crump was going to use his "free will" to kill someone. God also knew Prendes was ready and that he could use his death for a greater good, Dawn Prendes said.
"Satan thought he won that day because he took a devout Christian man off this Earth," Dawn Prendes said. "I feel that God turned it around to glorify him, and in God's soldier taken off this Earth he's created an army."
At the memorial service, many of Henry Prendes' friends and family members talked about their Christian faith. Daughter Brooke, 15, told the more than 5,000 people at Central and the 200,000 watching on television that she loved "Christ more than I loved my father."
Then, at the family's insistence to "close the deal," Wilhite shared steps viewers could take to share the sergeant's faith. The family told him to "bring them right up to accepting Christ in the service."
"We weren't going to have it any other way," Dawn Prendes said.
In addition to the rise in baptisms and church attendance, Dawn Prendes said attendance has tripled at the Bible study she and her husband led on Thursday nights. The first night after the shooting, her husband's co-worker, Officer Jason Hansen, came to the Bible study for the first time and made a confession of faith. Hansen was one of the officers who shot Crump after Prendes' slaying.
Another longtime friend of Dawn Prendes', Michael Venniro, said the couple's faith led him back to Christianity after five years as a practicing Muslim. He came over to help Dawn Prendes fix her computer March 4, and after five hours of conversation about their religions, Venniro said he broke down and cried.
Venniro said he had been attracted to Islam for its logic, but it ultimately left a spiritual hole in his life. But looking at the Prendes' faith, Venniro said he saw they had no doubts and that their church attendance had brought positive changes in their lives.
Venniro, 32, will be rebaptized at Central and has brought his wife and children back to church.
Wilhite said it is difficult to reconcile the circumstances of Henry Prendes' death with the stories of faith being brought about by how Prendes lived his life. "The Bible says he (God) will work all things for good," Wilhite said, but how do you define "good."
"You see friends die of cancer and you see an officer shot down and you ask how is that good and how can you work that for good?" Wilhite said.
"And yet as I look through the Bible I see that a huge part of God's definition of good is that is which is to our eternal benefit. And in that sense I really see a lot of good coming out of a horrible thing. A lot of people will benefit in this life and I believe in the life to come because of the faith choices they have made in response to Henry and his life."
Dawn Prendes, a former chief financial officer at the Golden Nugget, has set up a Web site, henrysplace.org, to carry out her husband's dream to start a youth camp. The couple were about to purchase land in Montana to start one of their own.
Now, another family has stepped forward to possibly donate land in Montana or to help pay for the camp. A local developer has offered to either donate money or help construct the camp. Friends and family have all volunteered their services as well.
In the end, even the camp will now be bigger than Henry Prendes could have ever accomplished during his lifetime, Dawn Prendes said. And that's exactly how he would have wanted it.