SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. — The sprawling white tent was already packed with hundreds of mourners Sunday, some of them spilling outside beneath an overcast sky, by the time Frank Pomeroy, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, took to the stage. He stood in front of a wooden cross wrapped in holiday lights.
At this moment a week earlier, with Pomeroy out of town, Devin Kelley entered the small white church and started shooting members of the pastor’s beloved congregation with an assault-style rifle. Twenty-six of them, including a pregnant woman’s unborn child, would die in the massacre.
In a tent erected on a baseball field a few blocks away, Pomeroy was again preaching, this time to a far larger congregation made up of victims, their family members, locals and outsiders who arrived from around the region to show their support for this tiny, heartbroken town.
“I know everyone who lost their life that day, some of which were my best friends, and my daughter,” Pomeroy said, pausing to hold back tears as the crowd began to applaud and yell encouragement. “I guarantee without any shadow of a doubt they are dancing with Jesus today.”
Pomeroy told the crowd that his church, just days removed from being full of FBI crime scene investigators and the horrors of the largest mass shooting in Texas history, would reopen to the public Sunday as a memorial. It had been cleaned and painted and had audio from previous services playing in the background.
“I haven’t seen this done in other catastrophes,” Pomeroy said. “But I want the world to know that that building will be open so that everyone who walks in there will know that the people who died lived for their lord and savior.”
Members of the crowd, most wearing jeans and leather boots, listened to sermons from Pomeroy, Sen. John Cornyn and Mark Collins, a pastor at a nearby church, who spoke about the importance of faith and healing. They sang along to songs and hymns, many hugging and breaking down into tears.
Sutherland Springs, faced with unimaginable loss, has turned to its faith as its most potent coping mechanism. Instead of casting blame or going into hiding or questioning why this tragedy befell them, this town has instead publicly looked to God, believing that there’s a reason for all of this. The victims, many here believe, are in a better place. Sorrow has quickly morphed into courage and resolve.
That began immediately after the Nov. 5 massacre, which took place during weekly Sunday services. Shellshocked residents began to gather at this tiny town’s community center, and Mike Gonzales, a pastor and local activist, arrived with one question in mind.
“What time is the prayer vigil?” he said, tapping neighbors on their shoulders one by one. “Does anyone know where we’re going to pray?”
Nobody had an answer. Some told the 46-year-old retired Army warrant officer that it was too early to think about a vigil. Bodies were still lying in the grass outside First Baptist Church a block away.
Gonzales disagreed. He took a deep breath and yelled, “Excuse me, can I have your attention? There will be a prayer vigil at 7 p.m. tonight at the post office!”
Six hours later, in a parking lot illuminated by candles, Gonzales — clad in black and with a fresh military buzz cut — was surrounded by hundreds of mourners, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), as he led the first worship service since Kelley, 26, had slaughtered 25 First Baptist congregants, eight of them children and teenagers.
“I propose we take a pact, right here, in this small town, that evil will not prevail,” Gonzales said. “That right here in the heart of Texas, this community, Sutherland Springs in Wilson County, will be stronger than ever!”
“Amen,” the teary mourners replied.
“If you agree, lift your candle,” he added. “It starts right now.”
At Gonzales’s impromptu gathering — and at multiple prayer vigils and memorials that followed, including one that featured Vice President Pence and a “prayer strategist” — a similar sequence unfolded: sorrow-filled remembrances, vows of support, calls for faith and fiery condemnations of evil, followed by gospel music, shouts of “Hallelujah!,” streaming tears and hands reached high.
Absent from each event in a community that strongly believes in gun ownership and self-defense was any mention of firearms or their role in the massacre — Kelley was wounded and sent fleeing by a nearby resident with a rifle similar to his — replaced by a steady stream of people offering their “thoughts and prayers.”
The lack of discussion about guns and the use of the thoughts-and-prayers mantra drew strong reactions from the political left and the gun-control lobby, with some arguing that prayers are not enough in the face of such violence; they said the government needs to address gun violence and pass sensible legislation.
Cornyn (R-Tex.) said he plans to introduce legislation to streamline the process of reporting military convictions to federal background databases, in large part because Kelley’s domestic-violence conviction while in the Air Force wasn’t conveyed to federal authorities — something that might have prevented him from buying the rifle used in the slayings. He said had the conviction been properly reported, Kelley “would have clearly been disqualified and perhaps, perhaps, there might have been a different outcome.”
He also said that the citizen who interrupted Kelley had an assault-style rifle and prevented others from being killed: “So I think the answer, to me, is we need law-abiding citizens to be able to defend themselves and their communities.”
In the homes and churches around Sutherland Springs, where families mourned their loved ones alongside preachers from around the region, the importance of prayer was never up for debate, even if it meant accepting an event of such horror: Only God could explain it.
Many Sutherland Springs residents said they consider prayer a deep and concrete response to the tragedy. The shooting was the result of a deranged individual, they said, not the type of weapon he used. To prevent another mass killing, they argued, society has to start by changing the culture that conditioned the killer. That starts with prayer, they said.
“It’s all we have sometimes,” Gonzales said. “It also begins the process of healing. Without it, you won’t heal, and right now people here are hungry for that.”
More than half of Americans say they pray daily, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. The same survey found that 63 percent of adults in Texas say they pray at least once a day, and 76 percent say they believe in heaven.
In scrappy, small Texas towns such as Sutherland Springs, where prayer occurs before local football games and veterans meetings, at the community center, and before school each morning, expressions of faith are woven into daily life. The town of about 400 people is home to a Dollar General store, a post office and a pair of gas stations, but it has four churches and one Islamic center. More than 10 percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and community leaders say churches are the place locals turn when they lose a job, they need a meal or they can’t afford to pay for a funeral.
Bill Martin, a professor of religion and public policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and whose family is from Wilson County, says that it’s true that most people believe in an all-knowing, loving God who hears and responds to their prayers. But to dismiss prayer as little more than an appeal to supernatural forces ignores the tangible benefits it offers amid tragedy, he said.
“By expressing their own pain and their concern for the suffering of the survivors and those who have lost friends and family members, they are saying, ‘We care about you and are with you in this, asking God to help you/us get through it,’ ” Martin said. “It’s the first line of defense against meaninglessness.”
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, an Episcopal priest, said that in moments of conflict or tragedy, prayer can facilitate the cooperative selflessness a community needs to endure.
“Prayer is really as much about our own orientation as it is about changing God’s mind,” she said. “It’s not like it somehow shifts the wind in a different direction, but it shifts us in a different direction.”
Paul Buford, the senior pastor of River Oaks Church — a Baptist church three miles away from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs — said that’s exactly what prayer has helped his congregation do in recent days.
In the hours after the shooting, Buford’s church was converted into a crisis center for victims’ families, turning classrooms into a temporary home for the Red Cross and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
“I’ve had many wet shoulders over the past few days,” he said.
The ties between the two churches are many, with some families, such as the Holcombes — who lost eight members in the shooting — attending services in each church, Buford said.
Prayer has been a bulwark against the kind of hopelessness and blame that could swallow a town after 10 percent of its residents were shot. From the perspective of evangelical Christian believers, he said, meaninglessness might be the worst possible fate because belief assures one a place in “God’s kingdom.”
“What is the point of slogging through life day by day by day so that when we die, we’re put in the ground and we throw dirt on top of the person and that’s it?” Buford said. “That’s a scary thought. But I have something to look forward to. Do you?”
As he’s wrestled with the killings, Gonzales said he’s returned to a line in the Bible from Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” To die in a church, while expressing one’s faith, he said, would’ve been considered an honor in biblical times.
“Anyone who lost their life in that church is part of a legacy that will live on forever,” Gonzales said.
Several days after she survived the First Baptist Church shooting, Rosanne Solis holed up in her dimly lit trailer at the end of a quiet neighborhood street in Sutherland Springs. Recovering from a shoulder wound, Solis is pondering death, as well, namely, how she narrowly avoided it.
The hydrocodone pills have numbed most of the physical pain, but the emotional pain has only just begun. She’s having trouble focusing, she said, her thoughts filled with horrific flashes from Sunday’s violence. Overall, she said, she’s not doing very well.
“I’m still shocked by the fact that all these children died. I knew all of them that were in there,” she said, before nodding toward her boyfriend, Joaquin Ramirez, who was grazed by a bullet inside the church. “I feel guilty because we survived and they didn’t. It’s God’s way, but I don’t understand God at all.”
Between trips to the doctor and to the store, she’s forced to change her bandages at least three times a day, and she’ll have permanent physical reminders of what happened in that church. “The doctors said it will take at least a year to heal,” she said. “The bullet went straight through and left a big, deep hole.”
But with the help of prayer, Solis said, her belief in God is deeper now than it was a week ago.
“We got out of that church for a reason, and that reason is for me to have a closer relationship with God than I did in the past,” Solis said. “I’m a changed person now.”