Will mass shooting at Texas church prompt 'serious soul-searching'?

The attack may be the deadliest targeting a congregation in U.S. history.
November 7, 2017
Crosses for Texas church
Kenneth and Irene Hernandez on November 6 visit a memorial placed near the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, the previous day. AP Photo/Eric Gay.

(The Christian Science Monitor) 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 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 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 shows 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,” said Rita Serna, who grew up in Sutherland Springs and sang her first solo in the First Baptist Church. “It’s sad, disturbing, unbelievable, . . . 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,” said 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 semi-automatic 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 the shooting arose from a “domestic situation.”

Kelley, 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, was not legally allowed to own a gun, according to both U.S. and Texas law. Gov. Greg Abbott said Kelley was denied a right-to-carry license, but reports say he purchased the Ruger at a San Antonio gun shop.

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 teenage daughter of the church’s pastor was among those killed.

Leslie Ward lost three family members in the shooting, two of them children. Another child in the family was wounded.

“Words can’t describe it,” Ward said 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. 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 U.S. 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.

“I think there’s going to be some serious questioning, some serious soul searching after this,” Roberts said. “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.”

He noted that the assailant “was born in that part of Texas.”

“There’s something in our culture that’s really out of control,” he said. “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 submarine-shaped propane tanks dot grassy lawns. 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.

Tim Williams, a pastor with the South Texas Children’s Home Ministries 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 . . . the churches,” he said. “It will be a whole lot more personal.”

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,” said Frances Garza, standing outside a police cordon, a block away from the church. She has lived in Sutherland Springs for 30 years.

Indeed, local mourners were not alone at a vigil for the victims held outside the post office on Sunday night. Residents from surrounding  towns such as La Vernia 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 Stephen A. Curry, pastor of La Vernia United Methodist Church, during the vigil. “We are going to show compassion where compassion needs to be shown.”

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. 

“We pass this church every day, every other day,” she said. “These families, through this pain they’re just going to grow in ways that they probably never knew. . . . And this community will too.”

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