Long after other journalists had packed up, Joe Holley stayed in the devastated town, getting to know survivors. He tells their stories with empathy and tact.
On November 5, 2017, “a country church in the middle of nowhere,” in the words of Joe Holley, became the site of the worst mass shooting in Texas history and the worst church shooting in American history. Holley, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle, was in Austin when he heard the news. Instead of driving home, he took Highway 87 to Sutherland Springs, an unincorporated community 21 miles east of San Antonio. He joined a crowd of police, aid workers, mourners, rubberneckers, politicians, and fellow journalists at the grisly scene where, a few hours earlier, 26 worshippers were killed and 20 were wounded.
Holley’s journalistic instincts kicked in, but unlike fellow reporters—including his son Peter, who writes for the Washington Post—he lingered long after the first week. Sensitive to the intrusiveness of his trade, he listened patiently and gained the trust of the traumatized survivors. In his new book, Sutherland Springs, these survivors become more than mere statistics. They are working-class folk—many trailed by troubled histories with alcohol, drugs, failed marriages, combat trauma, or prison—who found redemption and community in a rural religious sanctuary. The challenge for Holley, an outsider from the big city, is to describe a place he calls “nondescript.” But everyone has a story, and every place is fascinating if you’re curious, patient, and thorough. Through persistent immersive journalism, Holley has produced a heart-rending work of extraordinary empathy.
There were fewer than 50 worshippers on a typical Sunday at the proudly fundamentalist First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs (the congregation has doubled since the shooting). Holley places its gun-toting pastor, Frank Pomeroy, who struggled with alcoholism and spent time in prison for assault and battery before finding the church, within the tradition of frontier preachers. On the day of the shooting, Pomeroy happened to be in Oklahoma City for a training session by the National Rifle Association to qualify him to teach gun handling in a Christian youth camp. His daughter, Annabelle, was among those killed. He hurried home to tend to the remnants of his devastated flock.
Stephen Willeford, a plumber who lived nearby, heard the gunshots and, without tarrying to put on his shoes, rushed outside armed with his own AR-15. He shot attacker Devin Patrick Kelley and pursued him in a commandeered pickup. Wounded and hounded, Kelley eventually pulled his Ford Expedition into an empty field and put a bullet through his own head. Willeford has been hailed as a hero, the proverbial “good guy with a gun.” His example helped inspire Texas lawmakers to pass eight new bills loosening the state’s already lax controls on firearms.
As Holley notes, students who survived the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, embarked on a national campaign for gun control legislation, including universal background checks and bans on assault weapons. By contrast, many people in Sutherland Springs continue to believe that gun ownership is a God-given right, even duty. Pomeroy, who is currently running as a Republican to represent District 21 in the Texas state Senate, is far from the only one who comes to church packing heat. Holley makes his support for gun control clear, but the focus of this story is on the beliefs of the embattled Christians of Sutherland Springs, people he calls “living exemplars of courage, grace, and resilience.”
Forgiveness is an essential part of their faith, leading 86-year-old Joe Holcombe—who lost his son, daughter-in-law, grandson, pregnant granddaughter-in-law, and four great-grandchildren that day—to pray for Devin Patrick Kelley. “If we can’t forgive this person that’s done all of this evil,” he explained, “God can’t forgive us. We hold nothing against the shooter.” And the survivors hold nothing against God, whose love they affirm despite the atrocity. They are untroubled by the struggles of theodicy to reconcile the existence of evil with a benevolent deity; instead, they embrace God’s ways as an inscrutable mystery.
That is not to say that recovery, especially for the severely wounded and those bereft of family, has been easy. And the outpouring of generosity toward Sutherland Springs has been a mixed blessing. Though some $3 million in donations helped pay for construction of a large new sanctuary, discord over how to divvy up the rest has fractured the community. So have disagreements over whether to sue the Air Force, which failed to red-flag Kelley’s criminal background, and Academy Sports & Outdoors, which sold him his lethal weapon.
But the narrative shines brightest when it focuses on individual survivors. Holley shares the ordeal of 7-year-old Zoe Zavala, who saw her grandfather killed and her grandmother severely wounded even as she herself suffered a shattered pelvis. After three surgeries and six weeks in the hospital, she was able, aided by a leg brace, to walk back into her first-grade classroom. A triumphant procession of 100 fire trucks brought 6-year-old Ryland Ward, who was shot several times and lost half the blood in his body, back home after months of painful rehabilitation.
Mass shootings have become more common in Texas—from the UT Tower and Killeen Luby’s to Fort Hood, Santa Fe, Odessa-Midland, El Paso, and White Settlement. Like the Las Vegas, Orlando, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook atrocities, they are a ghoulish muse, inspiring hundreds of thousands of pages of parasitic prose. Sutherland Springs isn’t perfect—some of its digressions into the history of the town seem padded, for example, as does the account of Fightin’ Jack Potter, a 19th-century frontier preacher. But what distinguishes this book is its deference to brutal fact and its respect for baffled, suffering human beings.
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