Tiny Texas town turns inward in wake of mass shooting
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — The people of Sutherland Springs have not held news conferences, they haven’t made appearances on network morning television shows, and while they’ve been polite to the media, they’re not exactly forthcoming. Instead, this rural community is turning to the one thing that has buoyed them in good times, and sustains them now: an unshakeable faith in God.
David Colbath, one of 20 people who were injured but survived Devin Patrick Kelley’s rampage at the First Baptist Church, held Bible study from his hospital bed. Judy Green, a church member who avoided the carnage because she and her husband were running an errand, sought counseling at another church because of what she saw when she drove up to the building that day. Crystal Barkley, a Sutherland Springs resident who doesn’t even attend the church, prayed and “stayed at home for a couple of days, collecting strength.”
There have been no fewer than three prayer vigils for the victims. One, held Wednesday and attended by Vice President Mike Pence, was so large that it had to be held in the neighboring town’s football stadium. On Sunday, the town will gather for church services in its community center, which is next door to the church and was part of the crime scene for several days. Residents have included reporters in impromptu prayer circles and have tried, quietly, to let the world know that it is a God-loving town, not a place of violence.
“We want to be known for more than this,” sighed Tambria Read, president of the local historical museum, schoolteacher and lifelong resident. “We are not a shoot-’em-up community.”
It’s difficult to put into words what happens to a place after a mass shooting, and each has its own way of dealing with the horror. In big cities like Orlando and Las Vegas, it was possible for those not directly affected to mourn and move on, to try to get back to normal as quickly as possible and mend aching hearts. Suburban sprawl and the comforts of urban life helped smooth over the raw emotion and residents could ignore the media, the outsiders coming to help, the constant reminder of loss.
In Sutherland Springs, there’s been no escaping Sunday morning’s shooting that left 26 dead. Every resident in town knew at least one person who was killed, and most knew several. The victims were cousins, former students, people who they laughed with not long ago at the annual Fall Festival.
Eight were children, and one victim wasn’t yet born.
“It’s a good, simple community,” said Rod Green, Judy’s husband.
Green said he got a call from the church pastor, who was out of town. “He said, ‘what’s going on,’ and I said, ‘what do you mean?’ He said, ‘there’s been a shooting at the church. Aren’t you there?'”
By the time Green and his wife arrived, police and first responders were there. There were wounded people in the parking lot. The Greens tried to comfort the wounded, while ambulances crisscrossed the road outside. Helicopters landed nearby to fly the critically wounded to hospitals.
“I saw a lot of stuff in Vietnam, and I never expected to see that type of thing here,” he said.
And now there are outsiders in Sutherland Springs, who stick out by virtue of the fact that they’re asking questions during a time when people are pleading for answers from God.
It’s difficult for any community that’s been blindsided by sudden horror to cope with grieving in the public eye. But for Sutherland Springs, population 600, it’s been a particular challenge for several reasons — not the least of which is the fact that it’s set in rural Texas, a stoic and insular place.
Scores of media trucks, vans and cars have hunkered down at the town’s one major intersection (there are no stoplights here, only a flashing yellow). Anchormen did live shots near a flower-covered cross nailed to a post, while across the street, chaplains stood in a prayer circle next to a Frito-Lay truck in a gas station parking lot.
Charlene Uhl, whose 16-year-old daughter Haley Krueger died last Sunday, has spent the days since the shooting at home, comforting her other three children and planning a funeral. She hasn’t wanted to leave her house because the town is crawling with reporters.
The media attention “has made it harder,” she said. “It’s hard for me to talk about it.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that reporters have knocked on almost every door in Sutherland Springs, seeking stories about the victims.
Just a few days after Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost eight members of their family spanning three generations — including a son, grandchildren and great grandchildren — Mike Hopper stood guard outside the gate to the family’s ranch to keep the crush of media at bay.
As Hopper talked with a reporter on Tuesday, family members drove up in a pickup truck and said they would soon be calling authorities to keep the media away. They lamented how journalists were staking out their relatives’ homes, depriving them of their peace and time to grieve. The word “vultures” was used.
A shiny, new black-and-orange “No Trespassing” sign was stapled to the farm gate. Hopper said a woman from town drove around, handing them out. The signs sprouted in front of driveways and on fences all over the area.
“There’s just a lot of emotion and protection,” Hopper said.
It’s not that Sutherland Springs hasn’t weathered its share of tragedies. In the decades since people settled there in 1854 — the community was named after a doctor who treated soldiers at the Alamo — the town flooded, a high school burned down, and dozens were killed during a flu epidemic in 1919.
But in recent decades, things have been quiet in this sleepy town southeast of San Antonio. It’s surrounded by rolling hills and cow pastures, and at night, overarched by vast Texas skies.
“We ain’t got much news,” shrugged 84-year-old Richard Cardenas, who was born here and served as a county public works supervisor for decades. There was a flood in 1998, he recalled, and once, a woman with Alzheimer’s wandered into the woods and her body was found two months later. In 1993, the parents of Stephen Willeford were both killed in a motorcycle accident, said Cardenas’ wife, Theresa. (Willeford confronted Sunday’s attacker, shooting him, and has been hailed as a hero).
The Cardenases were home Sunday when a friend called, wanting to know what was happening at the church. Richard Cardenas wept over the next few days as he watched his town’s tragedy played out on a television from a hospital bed in the family’s front room.
He and his wife used to maintain the town cemetery, and now that duty’s fallen to his daughter Bertha and her husband. As a television anchor interviewed people about the shooting, Cardenas turned to his daughter and asked, “How many are they going to bury over there?”
Bertha shook her head. “We don’t know yet.”
She would be interviewed in The New York Times a few days later.
Tambria Read, the teacher, says the presence of the media has put a certain pressure on the town, one it just isn’t used to. Live satellite trucks hum in the middle of town day and night as schoolkids pass by on buses, and white-hot lights illuminate the faces of the cable news hosts.
“Did you look to the east sky and see the full moon this week?” she said. “The media’s lights have ruined the night sky.”