It’s important to know that in Wilson County in Texas, site of the horrific shooting that killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church on Sunday, life revolves around the schools and the churches. It’s a rural county of five small towns, and the biggest industry is cattle ranching. It is also a place where schools don’t plan anything on Wednesday nights because that is a church night.
I am the pastor at La Vernia United Methodist Church, seven miles west of Sutherland Springs, where the shooting occurred. Everyone here knew someone associated with the First Baptist Church. One of the dead was a parent whose child was in the 4-H club with a child in our program. Another victim was a lifelong friend of one of my parishioners; they graduated from La Vernia High 38 years ago. People from my congregation had attended Bible study at First Baptist or worked with its members on a mission project.
The idea that such a thing would happen in a sacred space, a place where families are supposed to be safe, has angered many people. Churches are places where the spirit of God is felt, where the presence of God is very real, where manners are expected and vulgarity is shunned. The church is where we, with all our faults and failures, come into the presence of the divine to find grace, to find peace, to rest in the arms of the Lord. The church is a sanctuary in the literal sense of the word, set apart, safe, protecting. All this was shattered.
Things like this don’t happen in small towns like ours. Those who moved to the country to protect their family from the perceived dangers of the city were especially shaken.
Almost every family here identifies with a church. In some cases, it’s more a matter of a family tradition than active participation. But for weddings and funerals, it is usually the “family church” that’s called. Even so, families go to different churches as they find activities that fit their needs. The Boy Scouts at the Methodist church. Soccer at the Roman Catholic church. Lions Club meetings at the Church of Christ.
One church has a clinic while another has a day care and still another a weekly lunch for the elderly. The churches work together to run a food bank, sponsor blood drives, and hold community worship services on Thanksgiving and Good Friday.
In our community, there is a deep, solid, underlying faith in God, even if it doesn’t manifest itself in church attendance every week. Immediately after the shooting the churches started receiving and making offers of help. They rushed meals to those grieving and to the emergency workers. They were called on to help fund funerals and host a blood drive. Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, nondenominational — it didn’t matter. Christ commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and the churches are where the people come together to serve in ways bigger than each of us can serve individually.
On Sunday night, a theology student at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, about 20 miles north, posted on Facebook about a prayer vigil he was organizing. I went to participate and was asked to join him in leading it. I saw people from my own church. I saw people from one of the nondenominational churches, a Catholic church, and a Methodist church in Floresville. Together we sang songs of worship and praise. Together we prayed for the victims and their families. The people from many churches became the Church, the one Body of Christ — holy, universal and apostolic — in love and compassion.
A church in Wilson County is a community center where good people strive to do good for fellow human beings. A church in Wilson County is a home for extended family to share their lives. A church in Wilson County is a place where we come to mourn losses, grieve the death of a friend or relative, celebrate the joys of life and love. A church in Wilson County is a place where we connect with the God who loves us, watches over us, and, in the end, welcomes us home.
New York Times