By Caroline Curtis
“We never think where it can happen, and it does happen. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. In a small community, real quiet and everything, and look at this,” Wilson County Commissioner Albert Gamez Jr. told CNN on Monday, Nov. 6.
On November 5, at approximately 11:20 a.m., Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on a small Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, about 30 miles east of San Antonio. Kelley, wearing all black and a ballistic vest, fired a Ruger AR-556 into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, killing 26 men, women and children, perpetrating the largest mass shooting in Texas state history. The gunman was a member of the US Air Force from 2010 until his discharge in 2014 for “bad conduct.” Kelley was also court-martialed in 2012 for assaulting his spouse and child; he served a year in prison. Authorities investigating the shooting theorize that this act of violence was instigated due to conflict between Kelley and his ex-wife and her family.
Following the initial outburst of violence, local Sutherland Springs citizen Stephen Willeford fought back against Kelley and forced him to flee the church. Willeford pursued Kelley until he made sure Kelley was too far to cause any harm. Kelley was later found dead in his car. After the autopsy of Kelley’s body, it was concluded that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Willeford claims that he is not a hero; he was simply a man that “was scared for [his] own family that lived less than a block away.” “I was scared to death. I was,” Willeford stated following his act of bravery that caused the gunman to flee the church and potentially saved more lives.
The town of Sutherland Springs is a “very small but very tight-knit community,” as described to CNN by local business owner Dana Fletcher. “There’s two gas stations, the church, a community center, post office, a Dollar General, a tire shop,” she said. “That’s about it.” Since the tragedy, the church’s Facebook page has been flooded with supportive and uplifting comments from all around the country, and many around the world are praying for the victims and families of those affected. The church has also opened a GoFundMe account to support the victim’s families. President Trump took to Twitter to send words of encouragement as well: “May God be with the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas.”
Many communities surrounding Sutherland Springs have commemorated the 26 lives lost on November 5; one of these communities is Seguin, Texas. The community of Seguin organized a “hope and healing” vigil that was held on Thursday, November 9. People in the surrounding communities are taking actions that move towards making sure that “they will not let the shooter force them to live in fear,” wrote Ariana Lubelli, writer for Fox San Antonio. Another act of unity was displayed by Miguel Zamora; he walked 35 miles from New Braunfels, Texas to Sutherland Springs carrying a 150-pound cross that read: “One nation under God” and “We love you Sutherland Springs.” Zamora told News 4 San Antonio that the motive behind this act was “to show [his] love and show the love of God to the families. That’s really [his] main message, just love one another.”
“Do not allow the lives that were lost or changed, to be in vain,” First Baptist of Sutherland Springs pastor Frank Pomeroy said in the service on Sunday, November 12, the first since the attack. Pastor Pomeroy was among those that lost a loved one on November 5. He lost his 14 year-old-daughter Annabelle. In Sunday’s service, 26 empty chairs were placed inside the church as a memento commemorating those that were lost. Pastor Pomeroy has suggested ceasing services in the church and to “turn that little small site there on the property into a memorial garden, and construct another worship center.” No decision will be made for some time though, as authorities are taking time to reflect on the recent event.
The First Baptist of Sutherland Springs community was so close as described by Pastor Pomeroy’s wife Sherri: “Our church was not comprised of members or parishioners, we were a very close family. We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together and we worshiped together. Now, most of our church family is gone.” The losses that occurred at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were tragic and caused the town to come together and support one another, providing comfort in times of need. During a news conference in Japan while on a multi-day Asian trip, President Trump stated what is needed of Americans at this time: “In tragic times, Americans always pull together. We are always strongest when we are unified.”
Featured image: Laura Skelding/AP.