When a lone gunman opened fire inside a church in rural Texas, he killed and hurt nearly everyone who went there that Sunday morning to worship. Twenty-six died. Many were children. One was a pregnant woman. Some 20 others were injured.
For tiny Sutherland Springs, a town of fewer than 700 people, those numbers represent a good portion of the church’s congregation. First Baptist Church, which reported an average estimated attendance of 100 in 2015, is the latest house of worship in the United States in which such carnage has taken place. Some say it’s an act of violence that is becoming too common at places that many saw as both sacred and safe.
The shooting is likely the deadliest mass killing at a house of worship in modern U.S. history, said Carl Chinn, who runs an extensive database on violence at places of worship, compiled by searching Google for news. This is the 14th fatal shooting at a house of worship since 2012, according to an Associated Press tally.
“The quantity and the frequency of these shootings is continually going up,” said Chinn, who travels the country to talk about security at churches. “The church is no longer sacred ground.”
He added: “I wish that most of us who are teaching about church readiness for this type of crime were wrong, but it’s not wrong. Evil has invaded sanctuary and will continue to do so.”
High-profile shootings and hate crimes have put violence at houses of worship under the spotlight. Before Sunday, a June 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in which nine people were killed, was the deadliest in recent decades. Nine people also died in 1999 at a Buddhist temple near Phoenix, the worst mass murder in Arizona history.
In 2012, six were fatally shot at a Sikh temple south of Milwaukee. In 1980, five people were killed after a gunman entered the First Baptist Church in Daingerfield, Tex., and yelled, “This is war!” Three people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in 2014 after an avowed white supremacist opened fire at a Jewish community center.
Black churches also have historically been targeted by white supremacists. Between 1995 and spring 1996, nearly 30 black churches were burned by arsonists. Many were in southern states, such as Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Other cases appear to be more related to domestic issues rather than deep-seated hatred against people of a certain faith or race. On Sunday evening, hours after the shooting in Texas, a man opened fire at his estranged wife and her boyfriend outside a church in Fresno, Calif. Investigators believe the Texas shooting also was not fueled by race or religion and said the massacre occurred amid an ongoing “domestic situation” between the gunman and his relatives.
The National Church Shooting Database, created by the Center for Homicide Research in Minnesota, tallied 139 church shootings from 1980 to 2005, nearly half of which happened at Baptist or Catholic churches.
Ed Stetzer, a professor and executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center, said he thinks many places of worship are vulnerable — something that religious leaders have to acknowledge.
“This is the perfect place,” Stetzer said of a house of worship. “People are focusing on something other than their own safety. Heartbreakingly, that is an easy target. I think that what we find in most cases is that there’s a motive tied into the evil . . . Evil knows where to find the good.”
Stetzer believes that after the massacre at the Texas church this weekend, more churches will start looking at security measures. Some have already done so.
One example is the Moody Church in downtown Chicago, where Stetzer speaks every week. The church’s sanctuary was burned by an arsonist in 1986.
“I assure you there’s not a Sunday when I don’t have within eyeshot several security team members,” he said. “Every large church I know has a security ministry already. I think more and more are going to do so. I think they’re going to, in some cases, have more than volunteers.”
After the shooting in Texas, church leaders responded by calling for the religious community to keep its faith.
“When attacks of hate and terror happen in our places of worship, it shakes us to the core. We must beg God for his mighty hand of protection on our nation and the world. May God be with the victims and church in this shooting,” Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor at Cross Church in Arkansas and one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers, wrote on Twitter.
Robert Jeffress, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas and another of Trump’s evangelical advisers, echoed Floyd in an interview with Fox News on Monday morning.
“First of all, the key to healing is to have a hope that transcends this tragedy, and I think this church and many churches have that hope . . . I think when we’re going through a storm like this, this tragedy, there’s some lights, some truths that we can focus on,” Jeffress said.
Such is the nature of the Christian faith, Stetzer said.
“When [people] go to church, they weren’t signing up to die. The whole Christian life is about living in light of eternity . . . They went from worshiping in a church to now worshiping forever in heaven,” he said. “On moments like this, we don’t have all the answers, but neither are we hopeless. Because we do believe that ultimately there’s an eternity before us and they got there much sooner than everybody expected.”