In Texas, a small town reels – and rallies – after church shooting

After the deadliest mass shooting at a place of worship in US history, residents of Sutherland Springs vowed to move forward and reclaim their beloved way of life.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Mike Gonzales (r.) of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and Stephen A. Curry, pastor of the United Methodist Church in La Vernia, Texas, led mourners in prayer at a vigil Nov. 5, the day a lone gunman killed 26 people at morning worship in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The mass shooting was the deadliest at a church in US history.

On a normal day in Sutherland Springs, Texas, all there is to fill the country air is the barks of local dogs and the hum of cars passing by. Indeed, locals say – with a hint of pride – you can drive through this town of several hundred without even noticing you did.

But Sunday was not a normal day here. Instead, a lone, black-clad gunman shattered the town’s tranquility with a hail of bullets that left at least 26 dead and 20 wounded in the First Baptist Church. Neighbors chased the gunman away and found him dead in his crashed car in the next county.

The tragedy in a close-knit, rural town that considers itself just outside of San Antonio’s commuting range was a reminder that in America, while a town may not have a single traffic light, it can still have a mass shooting.

“It’s a peaceful town. Everyone knows everyone,” says Rita Serna, who grew up in Sutherland Springs and sang her first solo in the First Baptist Church.

“It’s sad, disturbing, unbelievable,” she adds, “but possible in today’s times.”

As many Texans proudly point out, church life permeates much of Texas culture. And while it has more than 200 megachurches and dozens of evangelical colleges and universities, churches like First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs still define the daily rhythms of life in many rural Texas communities, local pastors say.

“It’s the kind of little church my dad pastored when I was growing up as a kid,” says the Rev. Bob Roberts, a Texas native who now pastors the 3,000-member NorthWood Church, an evangelical congregation in Keller. “These are the people who make Texas what it is – small towns, rural, hardworking people.”

At the end of the 11 a.m. worship service, officials say, Devin Patrick Kelley of New Braunfels opened fire on the congregation with a Ruger assault-style rifle, before being shot at by a local man and fleeing in his car. Pursued by locals, he crashed his car a few miles away and was found dead. Kelley’s in-laws attended the church, according to reports, and officials said Monday the shooting arose from a “domestic situation.”

A former member of the Air Force who was court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his wife and child and later kicked out of the service, Kelley was not legally allowed to own a gun, according to both US and Texas law. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Monday he was denied a right to carry license, but reports say he purchased the Ruger at a San Antonio gun shop.

'Something in our culture'

The worst mass shooting in Texas history has left a gaping hole in this community about 35 miles east of San Antonio. Among the dead were eight people spanning three generations of a single family. The victims ranged in age from 18 months to 77, and the teenage daughter of the church’s pastor was among those killed.

Leslie Ward lost three family members in the shooting: her husband’s five and seven-year-old nieces Brooke Ward and Emily Garza, and their mother, Joann Ward. His five-year-old nephew, Ryland Ward was wounded, but in a stable condition as of Sunday night, the Dallas Morning News reported.

“Words can’t describe it,” Ms. Ward says on Sunday night, pacing in front of her house a block away from the church, waiting for news from the hospital.

“I feel angry. I feel sad,” she adds. “I would never think this would happen here, in a small community.”

The shooting is also the deadliest at a place of prayer and worship in modern US history, and one of a series in recent years targeting churches and temples. In September, a man shot and killed one woman and injured seven others at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, outside of Nashville.

In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire in the basement of Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine black church members. In 2012, a gunman shot down six worshipers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.

“I think there’s going to be some serious questioning, some serious soul searching after this,” says Pastor Roberts. “This was one of us. It’s one thing when someone gets killed while hunting. When somebody can come in with a Ruger AR-15, you just can’t say, too bad, that’s the way things go, there’s nothing to be done.

“This wasn’t some city slicker who went down to a little country town – he was born in that part of Texas,” he continues. “So there’s something in our culture that’s really out of control. It’s gone bad. We’re producing our own bad apples, we can’t blame it on ISIS.”

Sutherland Springs is so small it doesn’t have its own high school. The town center is a post office, a Dollar General (new this year), a gas station, and the First Baptist Church. Cattle graze in surrounding fields, and metallic, submarine-shaped propane tanks dot grassy lawns. Signs for a yard sale still dotted the town on Sunday. Far away from the metropolises of Dallas and Houston, the gas station sells hats for the Junction Eagles high school football team. There are no traffic lights, only stop signs and a yellow blinking light strung over Highway 87.

“You’re just outside [the range] of people buying places out in the rural areas and commuting into San Antonio,” says Tim Williams, a pastor with the South Texas Children’s Home Ministries.

“People are living out here, moving out here, trying to get away from some of the big city stuff,” he adds. “Now the big city stuff’s come to them.”

He has spent much of his 27-year career working in the rural towns between San Antonio and Victoria, including Sutherland Springs.

“The central institution of a town like this is the school, and then it goes to the churches.... Not everyone is involved in [each] church, but everyone from other churches would know who’s in that church,” he adds. “It will be a whole lot more personal.”

'We will not be changed by one man'

As night fell over the town on Sunday – the narrow streets lit up by red and blue police lights – locals vowed to move forward.

“We’re not going to let this beat this town,” says Frances Garza, standing outside a police cordon, a block away from the church. She has lived in Sutherland Springs for 30 years.

“I’m hoping we still go back to what we were: a small town,” she adds.

Indeed, local mourners were not alone at a vigil for the victims held outside the post office on Sunday night. Residents from the surrounding network of towns – including Stockdale, La Vernia, Floresville, and Poth – flocked here to hold candles and sing together in a slow, somber murmur that occasionally strengthened with the chorus.

“Who are we going to be tomorrow? We are going to be the people of Texas, the people of Sutherland Springs, the people of the First Baptist Church,” said Pastor Stephen A. Curry of the La Vernia United Methodist Church, during the vigil.

“We are going to show compassion where compassion needs to be shown,” he added. “We will not be changed by one man.”

After the vigil, Katie Metcalf – a stay-at-home mom who lives a mile away, on the Sutherland Springs-La Vernia border – stared silently across the road toward the small blue and white sign of the First Baptist Church. She drives past it almost every morning, she says, and would have been here on Sunday as well – on the way to the Dollar General – but turned around after her family said they wanted to go somewhere for food.

“We pass this church every day, every other day,” she says. “It’s just a tragedy that you don’t think’s going to happen.”

“These families, through this pain they’re just going to grow in ways that they probably never knew,” she adds, “and this community will too.”

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