Editor's note: The author is a member of the Visalia 2nd Ward.
VISALIA, Calif. — On Aug. 29, 2010, Bishop Clay Sannar was shot and killed in an LDS meetinghouse in Visalia, California. Five years later, his wife and six sons are working to make the tragic experience a force for good.
“I feel in everything the Lord has certainly prepared us and not left us without a way to carry on,” said Julie Sannar, Clay Sannar's widow. “We’ve been blessed immensely, and even though it’s difficult, I think about the people in (The Book of) Mosiah, how their burdens were not taken from them — the burden was still there — but they couldn’t feel it on their backs because their strength was increased through the Lord. I know the Lord prepared us every step of the way.”
Julie Sannar and her six boys still attend the Visalia 2nd Ward, where her 40-year-old husband served as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The congregation provides an extensive support group that includes two of Clay Sannar's siblings: sister Melisse Myers and her husband and five children, and brother Matthew and his wife and two children.
While her sons have at times asked why the tragedy occurred, Julie Sannar said she received a confirmation from the Lord the day of the shooting that the family was where they were supposed to be.
“I knew there was not any reason to ask why," she said. "Someday we’ll have an understanding. We just do our best and accept the Lord’s will, whatever that may be. That’s a lesson I’ve reiterated to the boys, especially the little boys.”
Her sons range in age from 18 to 5. The youngest was just a few months old when his father was killed. Since the two youngest don't remember their father, the older ones take time to impart memories and lessons from their dad.
“I’m very grateful the boys have each other,” Julie Sannar said. “They are a huge support system for each other. I reminded them of that when we were at the cemetery (in August). It’s their bond they have. They need each other.”
Julie Sannar has found strength not just from her sons, her extended family and her faith, but through work. She and her husband both earned degrees in agronomy and agricultural business. The couple had started the company Soil Basics, which focuses on specialty nutrition for plant health. Julie Sannar now runs the business.
The Sannars were in the process of finding a new location for their business when Clay Sannar was killed. They had been considering a property that included a small house, which had been a “sticking point” because they just needed the land.
After Clay Sannar's death, that small house became a refuge for the family.
“It was painful to be in our home, so (this two-bedroom home) became our house of healing," Julie Sannar said. "It was a place for us to recuperate and recover.”
Once she realized that the family wanted to stay there, Sannar added on to the house to make it big enough for six boys. Relocating the business, renovating the house and moving have given her purpose.
“I always thought about the scripture in Ether (2:16), which says ‘go to work and build,’ when the Lord was telling the people to build their barges," she said. "That was my therapy.”
While the business gives Sannar the opportunity to provide for her family, it’s also a legacy to leave to her sons.
“They associate the company with their dad, so it’s something they want to be a part of," she said.
Myers said time has eased the pain of losing her brother and that after five years, many of the complex feelings of grief have started to lift. It was difficult for her and her siblings to see their nephews growing up without a father, and they had felt confusion and “intense sadness” when they saw their own children with their fathers and the Sannar boys without their dad.
“It does seem like everyone’s a little more accepting of (what happened)," Myers said. "We’re starting to see and understand more of the purpose. We can see that everyone’s doing well: Julie’s boys are growing up and doing well. We see how strong and true to the faith Julie and the boys are. We’re seeing more of the blessings.”
Myers, who moved to Visalia a little less than two years after her brother’s death and whose husband, Rob Myers, was recently called as the new bishop of the 2nd Ward, started a tradition of a “memorial run” from her house to the building where the shooting occurred, a distance of nearly six miles, since “Clay enjoyed running, too.” This year, she brought along her five children, ages 11 to 1, who either ran, walked or rode.
“It was definitely tough for all of us, and at the last mile when the hot valley sun was trying to steal our last bit of energy, we had a good talk about doing hard things in this life and the importance of enduring ‘well’ to the end,” she said. “And to my surprise, no one cried or complained the whole time. In fact, (three of them) sprinted the last few blocks. … My heart was beaming and my eyes were tearing as I watched them go and I suddenly realized, even though they are little, they get it. And it’s these moments that I get a glimpse of how trials can bless our families. They really can.”
Myers said she wants the experience of her brother’s death to be a “driving force.”
“If we hadn’t gone through this, I wouldn’t have that to apply to their lives," she said. "It is an amazing tool we can use to help our kids understand the purpose of life and have a better perspective growing up. Hopefully it carries through.
“Definitely we all feel a stronger conversion to the gospel, where it’s not just something that feels good, to go to church and listen to stories. It’s real. All of the principles of the gospel, the Atonement, we all understand it now. Definitely. This is the real deal. It’s up to us: the purpose of this life is basically to endure to the end and gain that eternal happiness after this life. We all have things we struggle with and go through; this event has really forced us all to rely on our testimony and figure out what faith is and how to use the Atonement properly. And we have a stronger desire to serve.”
Julie Sannar draws strength from others and hopes also to be a source of strength.
“When I see other people who have been in similar situations, I can look at them and say, ‘You’ve made it; I can too,’” she said. "I hope I can someday help others the way I’ve been served and helped.”
The family is buoyed up by others around them in many ways. A group of women in the ward still takes homemade meals to the Sannars twice a week. Leaders and teachers take care to support the six Sannar boys.
Mike Hagman, who served the past five years as the 2nd Ward's bishop and was recently released, said the tragedy compels him to "think about my responsibilities, how (being bishop) takes you away from home, but (Clay’s) away 24/7. I get the sense that people (in the ward) have that on their minds. For me, it’s always on my mind.
“Ever since then, I find that oftentimes, when working with the boys, I’ll say, ‘That’s something your dad would be proud of.’ I want them to know their dad had these good qualities. The younger ones' memories aren’t really there, have faded. I think remembering is just important, for people to remember, to remind the boys.”
The loss still motivates ward members to serve in other ways. Just an hour before Bishop Sannar was killed, he was reminding ward members during the third hour of church to go out to the church vineyard and pick grapes that following Saturday. The ward has an assignment in Madera, California, to harvest grapes yearly and lay them out to dry for the welfare program.
That year, many of the ward members drove the hour to Madera to harvest and found their four rows were already done. But they went out and helped other wards with their assignments.
This year, the ward spent about three and a half hours in the dusty, sweaty work of picking grapes, yielding about 1,000 trays of raisins from their rows alone. The members consider it a small tribute to Bishop Sannar.
Julie Sannar is grateful for the service of others. Many people, strangers included, reached out with love and spoke of prayers following her husband's death.
“We were touched and amazed about how people reached out to us and were so generous to us and did the most amazing, thoughtful things," she said. "They sent us Halloween things, Valentines; people remembered us at the year mark. People told us they were praying for us. I truly felt the strength of collective prayers.”