MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
Sunday morning, November 5th, 2017, a killer dressed in tactical gear enters the front door of a small church in south central Texas. He fires hundreds of rounds and in just four minutes turns a worship service into the deadliest mass shooting in state history. The attacker killed 26 parishioners. He wounded 20 others. Every family in the church lost someone they loved.
REICHARD: So how does a close-knit, faith-based family cope with this kind of violence and loss? Anna Johansen visited First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and files this report.
AUDIO: [Fellowship Hall crowd sound]
ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: It’s a lively night in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church. About 30 people gather around plastic folding tables, eating chicken and dumplings. Or, as they say in Texas twang—chicken and dumplins.
After dinner, the group gathers for Bible study.
AUDIO: [Sound of speaker]
The church secretary passes out a list of prayer requests. At the top of the page: “Pray for the survivors.” It has 23 names—people who were in the church last November 5th and lived.
AUDIO: [List of survivors]
Some of the survivors are here tonight. In one corner, Julie Workman. She watched from under a pew as the gunman shot her son—paralyzing him from the waist down. Gunny Macias sits near the front, a cane propped beside him. He was shot five times. Off to the side sits Jenni Holcombe. She lost her husband and her young daughter.
HOLCOMBE: I had a 17-month-old…Everything was about taking care of her and doing things, and we were always going places because she was a very social person…Now it’s just me.
Holcombe’s sister-in-law, Sarah Slavin, was running late to church that day. She lost her brother and parents—plus five nieces and nephews.
Both women have had to figure out how to navigate daily life.
SLAVIN: Even just you know figuring out how to mow the lawn because we’d never—you know we weren’t the ones that did stuff like that.
As we talk, Slavin’s 3-year-old daughter, Elene, plays nearby. She brings her mom a pink stuffed monkey and fastens it around her neck, then races away.
SLAVIN: We had some very severe separation anxiety…After November, if she was in the next room, I would start panicking. I knew that wasn’t healthy for her. And it wasn’t healthy for myself. So we went to the play therapist, and now she’s good…The play therapist actually helped me through a lot of my own anxieties.
Many survivors suffer nightmares, sleeplessness, or depression. Some still won’t set foot in the old church’s little white sanctuary.
AUDIO: [Unlocking the memorial]
The church is a memorial now: white walls, white floors. White chairs mark the spot each victim died, and a red rose sits on each. Contact paper covers the window panes once punctured by bullets.
The church now meets in a temporary building. Poems and artwork dedicated to the victims and their families adorn the walls. An armed safety team patrols the property.
WILLEFORD: A visual presence makes a difference. Security cameras. Radios. An active team that’s actually training together.
Stephen Willeford lives across the street from First Baptist. He confronted the killer outside the church last November—but he doesn’t want to be called a hero.
WILLEFORD: If I’ve got to be considered a survivor or a hero—I want to be with my community. I’m hurting as bad as they are. I’m a survivor.
Willeford is an experienced gun safety instructor. He now trains the First Baptist safety team. He also flies around the country, teaching churches how to be proactive about their safety.
WILLEFORD: If I can make one more church aware and stop something as horrible as what happened here, then that’s a good thing.
Slavin and Holcombe are doing their best to focus on the good as well. In May, they commemorated their mom’s birthday.
HOLCOMBE: She would make these cookie wands for everybody for their birthdays. So we tried to make some. And the dough turned out where it just stuck.
SLAVIN: Yeah it was horrible, we couldn’t do it. And so we just had a cookie dough fight instead.
Laughter, they’ve found, is another way families are finding healing.
SLAVIN: A lot of the ladies at church that were killed were some of the biggest instigators of all our shenanigans and fun stuff.
So they try to keep those “shenanigans” going. A few weeks ago, they had a pirate theme at church. Congregants wore eye patches and baggy pants and brandished hooks. Slavin wore her mom’s pirate boots. They posted pictures on the church’s Facebook page. The caption reads, “Only in Sutherland Springs do you have a pirate day for no good reason, and sing the Veggie Tales pirate song. #evildidnotwin.”
SLAVIN: You have to acknowledge the pain and the hurt and even the evil and hate…It’s okay to acknowledge it, but not to dwell on it, don’t get stuck on that.
Slavin is grateful for counseling and community support, but she says her relationship with Christ is what brings peace in the pain.
SLAVIN: If I get a movie going over and over in my head of, like, let’s say what happened, and can’t get it out, I’ll pray, and I’ll ask God, ‘God please give me some kind of comfort with this.’ And He always does.
Slavin isn’t the only one who turns to Christ in times of trial. First Baptist used to have a congregation of 50 or 60. Now, it has swelled to nearly 200.
AUDIO: [Sound of crowd greeting]
This Sunday morning, the sanctuary brims with talk and laughter. The worship is a cappella because the lead guitarist is sick. But that doesn’t keep them from singing.
SINGING: [Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night. Praise the Lord, I saw the light. I saw the light, I saw the light]
For Slavin and the rest of First Baptist, the last year has only begun to heal their scars…but through it all, they’ve seen God at work.
SLAVIN: On my worst moments, when I feel like I’m hanging on by a thread, that thread is Jesus Christ. I have felt the whole time that he’s holding me, and any strength, it’s what he’s giving me. There’s been a lot of support and help and stuff, but when you actually get down to it, no one can get us through this. Only God can do that.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Sutherland Springs, Texas.