On the last Saturday of October, residents of Sutherland Springs, Texas, gathered for the annual Old Town Day parade. As in past years, the parade included a fire truck and ambulance, men and women on horseback, and local politicians riding in cars decorated with campaign signs.
Residents who were not in the parade watched from camp chairs along the route. People on the floats greeted spectators by name and tossed candy to them. The “Valentine Court”—little girls in sparkly red gowns and silver tiaras and two little boys in gold and red crowns—rode on the Sacred Heart Catholic School’s float. The small princess occasionally pointed her scepter at her court and demanded, “Silence!”
But when the four-person bagpipe band finished playing “Cotton-Eye Joe” and began “Amazing Grace,” the festivalgoers grew quiet.
Those same pipers had played that same song at the funerals last year of the 26 persons who died in the deadliest church shooting in U.S. history. On Nov. 5, 2017, Devin Kelley, wearing tactical gear and armed with a rifle and two handguns, stormed the Sunday morning worship service at the First Baptist Church and mowed down 26 people, including an unborn baby.
For the past year residents of this small Texas town have struggled to recover from their incalculable loss. They’ve coped with a flood of media attention, received outpourings of love and sympathy from around the country, and seen firsthand the ugliness of those who tried to gain from their loss.
Sarah Slavin, who lost nine family members, described how many are coping: “You have to acknowledge the pain and the hurt and even some of the evil, the hate for that matter. It’s okay to acknowledge it, but don’t get stuck there.”
Immediately after the shooting, reporters rushed to Sutherland Springs and the surrounding Wilson County. Media vans flooded the wide street separating First Baptist Church from the Valero gas station. The media attention was intrusive, but it also prompted people from around the country to send money, prayers, and letters of sympathy.
Wilson County residents brought meals and sat with survivors at the hospital. They parked RVs outside the hospital so people could privately receive notice of family members’ deaths. Out-of-town family members came to help. Jenni Holcombe’s parents came to stay with her after her husband, Danny, and their only child—17-month-old daughter Noah—died in the shooting.
Holcombe’s mom stayed with her until Thanksgiving. Afterward Holcombe spent months navigating legal issues and sorting through her husband’s and daughter’s things. Chores her husband used to do required her attention. How to mow the grass. What to do when she saw a scorpion or snake in the yard. Which mechanic to trust with the broken-down car.
She spent a lot of time with her husband’s sister, Sarah Slavin. Slavin had also suffered serious loss: Along with her brother Danny and niece Noah, she lost her parents, a sister-in-law, and four other nieces and nephews in the shooting. She said the church daily felt the loss of nearly half its members: “Everybody who was lost had a lot of things that they took care of, and then they all left at once.”
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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Charissa Crotts