In the quiet, 16,000-person town of Uvalde, Texas, nearly everyone has connections to the children, families, and teachers shaken by the deadly elementary school shooting.
“I was watering my flowers in the front yard when I heard shots ring out,” said Julian Moreno, former pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista. Moreno lives two blocks from Robb Elementary School, where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 kids and two teachers on Tuesday.
Within minutes of hearing the shots, Moreno said he saw two policemen running down the street. Then, an exchange of gunfire so close he could smell the powder.
Knowing his great-granddaughter, Lexi, was a student at the school, Moreno walked to the campus once the shots ceased.
He later learned that the attack took place in 10-year-old Lexi’s classroom, and she was among the victims.
Outside the school, Moreno said, the atmosphere radiated with fear, as parents clamored to get into the barricaded building. Officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Border Patrol shouted at one another as they put on their gear and approached the school.
“People were talking loudly, a lot were crying,” he said. “They were saying, ‘My son or my daughter is in that building,’ and the officers were just saying ‘I’m sorry, you can’t go any further.’”
Located 80 miles west of San Antonio, an hour from the Mexican border, the town of Uvalde is 82 percent Hispanic, with sizable Catholic and Baptist populations. Around 20 local churches have joined together to support their community, now known as the location of the third-deadliest school shooting in the US.
Because he’s a faith leader, people in the community have turned to pastors like Moreno for guidance in their grief. Moreno has been praying most with his granddaughter Kimberly Mata-Rubio, Lexi’s mother, who “went into complete shock.”
After the honor roll ceremony earlier in the day, Mata-Rubio wrote, “We told her we loved her and would pick her up after school. We had no idea this was goodbye.” She sobbed as her husband spoke about Lexi on CNN on Wednesday.
“I need to be as strong as I can to be able to minister to my family in particular,” Moreno said.
In such a small town, many of the people called on to help provide spiritual support are themselves grieving. The whole place is devastated.
“It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody,” said Joe Aguilar, Texas Baptists’ area representative for the Rio Grande Valley. “They are going to need a lot of help.”
Texas Baptists reported that Aguilar drove to Uvalde to pray with community members outside the school on Tuesday and has helped coordinate chaplains to assist local pastors.
“You want to make sure the people that are providing care are trained, because we want to give the best help, the best assistance, to these families who are in their worst part of life. And not just anybody is prepared for something like this,” he said.
Anyra Cano, an adjunct professor at Baptist University of the Americas and pastor’s wife at Iglesia Bautista Victoria en Cristo in Fort Worth, made plans to travel to Uvalde to work with parents to “help their children address their fears.”
Neftali Barboza, pastor of Iglesia Nueva Jerico, had just picked up his son early from Robb Elementary before the attack occurred. The funeral home across the street from the school was filled with terrorized children, and Barboza was called to comfort them.
“I stayed and helped take care of the kids,” he told Baptist Press. “I let as many parents as I could know their child was safe.”
The Pew Research Center has found that 24 percent of Americans report their faith becoming stronger in times of tragedy, and churches often have high attendance weekends after a horrific event. Pastors like Barboza are preparing for full services, funerals, and prayer meetings as members of the community gather to process and cry together.
On Wednesday night, ministers organized a packed prayer vigil at the Uvalde Fairplex Arena, attended by Gov. Greg Abbott and US Sen. Ted Cruz. Amid worship songs and remarks, Baptist Temple Church pastor Tony Gruben prayed that “God will heal their little hearts and their little souls.” Some prayed in small groups, while others sobbed during a solo violinist’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
On Thursday, Sacred Heart Catholic Parish in Uvalde held a prayer service for victims as well.
Pastor Doug Swimmer of The Potter’s House Church told ABC News that he went to pray with families at the hospital. In addition to the 21 people killed, 17 others were injured in the attack.
“I know that one thing that is going to help us through is God’s grace and God’s love,” he said. “What the world needs and what our community needs is a light that shines in the darkness.”