In a uniquely American scene of mourning, community members in a small Texan town where 19 elementary school children were fatally shot in their classroom gathered the following night in a bull-riding ring beneath the Texan and American flags to put their faith in Jesus – and one another.
Religious leaders, speaking in turns in English and Spanish, urged the townspeople of Uvalde to hold one another tight and trust in their God, even in the face of so much horror.
“God still loves these little children,” said Tony Gruben, pastor of the Baptist Temple Church. “We don’t understand it, but he does.”
The vigil at the Uvalde County Fairplex on Wednesday night was a coming together and a communal letting of sorrow and emotion, as mothers of children lost in the shooting at Robb Elementary School squeezed their other children, and family and friends wept in the bleachers.
In addition to the children, two teachers were killed.
Laid bare here was the devastation begotten by the worst of American culture, the gun violence that bursts forth in sudden, senseless brutality in schools and churches and workplaces.
Also unmistakable was the best the United States has to offer, the sense of community that holds little towns together all across the country, especially in the face of tragedy.
Hundreds if not more came out. They said they had to be together at a time when such tragedy had one way or another hit all of them, given how interconnected people’s lives are here.
Lory Zimmerman, who taught at Uvalde’s junior high for 25 years, still lives in town and now teaches in a neighboring district, said the vigil was about “being with everybody,” about remembering how much they love their town in a moment when nothing else makes sense.
This was never supposed to be Uvalde’s fate. How could it be?
“We’re just all numb right now. Nobody knows what to think. This wasn’t supposed to happen in our small town, ”she said. “We go through active shooter drills all the time, and it’s just drills. We didn’t think it’s ever going to be here with us. ”
Sitting on the bleacher right in front of Zimmerman was one of her former students, Rebecca Taylor, who grew up in the town of 16,000. Everyone is so close in Uvalde that everyone knows someone who was hurt, Taylor said. Her son, seated next to her, went to school with kids who lost siblings and cousins.
It’s part of what made Tuesday, when the names of the young victims trickled out with agonizing slowness, so difficult for the whole town, which waited and grieved with the frantic parents collectively.
“Yesterday we were all waiting for the names,” Taylor said. “Piecing that together has just been heart-wrenching – realizing whose grandchild it was, whose cousin it was.”
And so it was in the Fairplex that weeping broke out periodically as the pastors onstage called on the town to be there for one another in the coming days, and to never lose trust in God.
People responded by saying “Amen,” or putting their hands in the air, or bending their heads and closing their eyes in prayer.
The pastor said they saw their agony and disbelief, their pain and anguish, their questions and fears and anger. They said they had cried that day thinking about all the young children who lost their lives, and the others who survived but have now “seen more than they should ever see in their lives.”
He prayed for the “children who saw what happened to their friends, that God will heal their little hearts, their little souls.” And he noted that he had seen “great love” in the community in the face of evil in the last two days – exactly what was needed.
“You don’t overcome evil with more evil,” he said. “You overcome evil with love.”
As the vigil concluded, a violinist took to the stage in the bull ring and played “Amazing Grace.”
After, families gathered in small groups, sobbing into one another’s shoulders.
One mother, too overcome to speak, nonetheless put forward a picture of her 10-year-old daughter, Alithia, who was killed, wanting those around her to see whom she’d lost.