Church After the Sutherland Springs, Texas, Mass Shootings

Following the tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Christians wrestle with the reality of violence in their own churches, yet look forward in hope.

Emergency vehicles outside First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, where a mass shooting has taken place. (Photo: Texas Tribune via KSAT-TV)
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Christians preparing for Sunday morning worship services were met with terrifying news two Sundays ago. Twenty-six parishioners were killed by a lone gunman at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The victims ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old, including a mother, her unborn child and three of her children.

The nation reeled with fear and trepidation as people were faced with the jarring reality that such evil and violent bloodshed had occurred in what should have been a sanctuary—a safe space—where people come to meet God.

Armed with a Ruger AR rifle and wearing a ballistic vest, Devin Patrick Kelley entered First Baptist Church during the worship service at around 11:30 a.m. and opened fire at unsuspecting parishioners. According to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, this was the largest mass shooting in the state’s history.

As Kelley was leaving the building, Stephen Willeford, a local resident whose house is near the church, grabbed his own gun and confronted Kelley, striking him in the leg and torso. After sustaining these injuries, Kelley entered his vehicle and drove away, pursued by Willeford, who directed authorities to Kelley’s whereabouts. When local authorities arrived on the scene, they found Kelley dead in his vehicle from a self-inflicted head injury.

County Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr. told CNN that he considers Willeford a hero: “I don’t think there’s any question about that. Had he not done what he did, we could have lost more people.”

dylann roof photo
(Photo: Spencer Means )

Willeford, a member of the National Rifle Association, was commended by the NRA and its representatives as a prime example of the benefits of gun rights.

This tragic event in Sutherland Springs, Texas, comes in close proximity to another shooting that captured national attention two years ago in Charleston, South Carolina, when Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church.

Christians around the nation have come to the startling realization that no place is safe from mass shootings—including their own places of worship. Various Christian leaders have voiced their opinions about how worshippers can defend themselves in an active shooter situation.

Following the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, claimed that a shooter at his church would be stopped because his parishioners carry guns to worship services. “I’d say a quarter to a half of our members are concealed carry,” Jeffress told Fox News. “They bring them into the church with them.”

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Others fundamentally disagree with Jeffress, arguing that carrying guns in church is fundamentally antithetical to the message of Christianity. In an interview with The Huffington Post in 2013, the Rev. Philip Blackwell of First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple made special note of Jesus ordering his disciples to put their swords away at the Garden of Gethsemane:

They begin to do a fight and he calls his guys off and heals the guy who is wounded and says, ‘that’s how we play the game.’ If you’re walking around carrying a gun and think that it is a tribute to the Christian Gospel, then you’ve been reading the wrong book.

Regardless of Christians’ opinions on gun control and the legitimacy of carrying guns into a church, it is clear that these horrific shootings are spurring further discussions about how churches should prepare for violence.

As Christians and churches around the nation grapple with this new reality of church shootings and violence, many are responding with words of hope and solidarity.

“The San Antonio shooting prompts two sobering thoughts,” Ray Ortlund said in a tweet. “One, it could have been any of us. Two, it was us. In Christ, we are one.”

Pastor Earon James of Relevant Life Church offered a prayer for Christians to respond faithfully to the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs:

Help us to weep with those who are weeping. Give us the grace and wisdom to be your hands and feet. Show us how to mobilize as your people. Show us how to be graciously and boldly present in these difficult times.

Father, for the sake of your great name, we ask that you keep our hearts from being filled with bitterness, revenge, and despair. As your people, we are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. Let grace, mercy, truth, and justice prevail.

In honor of the fallen, First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs converted their building into a memorial. Congregants gathered outside under a large white tent for their first worship service this past Sunday as Pastor Frank Pomeroy gave an emotional message to those in attendance.

“Rather than choose darkness as that young man did that day, we choose life,” Pomeroy said during the service. “I know everyone who gave their life that day, some of whom were my best friends and my daughter. I guarantee they are dancing with Jesus today.”


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