From Texas Public Radio:
Sutherland Springs was the center of worldwide attention earlier this month after a shooting at a church left 26 dead. Now that the international press corps has left it’s quiet again.
After saying goodbye to friends and relatives — even burying entire families — the people of the small rural community roughly 40 miles from San Antonio have only begun coming to terms with their loss.
On Sunday, residents met for an early Thanksgiving feast, where many were laughing again for the first time since that day.
Several hundred people attended a Feast of Sharing, just two weeks after the mass shooting at First Baptist Church.
“The last few days have been very hard,” said Tammy Read, who welcomed guests to the Sutherland Springs Community Center. “A lot of those people that lost their lives were my students — former students.”
Read’s a teacher at nearby Floresville High School and part of the Sutherland Springs Community Association.
Read said work on the feast began in March and the date was chosen in September.
“It just so happens that we selected this date, so it was sort of God’s hand of putting it aligned when we actually need it,” she said. “So after the event of Nov. 5, this is kind of a healing event as well.”
The event was Terri Smith’s idea. She runs a small restaurant called Teresa’s Kitchen in a gas station across the highway from First Baptist Church. As she finished a prayer, Smith told everyone to grab a plate.
“We’re going to have two lines guys, OK,” she said. “We have turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans desserts — everything.”
Volunteers pulled the lids off a dozen trays full of Thanksgiving fare and started plating food. Smith said all the food, including three dozen turkeys were donated or bought with donated money.
“They would come to the store and drop the turkeys and the hams, and before you knew it, four or five cans of green beans,” she said. “It was just a outpour, we were very blessed.”
Smith lost her dear friend JoAnn Ward in the shooting. Two of Ward’s daughters were also killed.
“Yes, it hurts,” she said. “All of us have our moments of breaking down, but now it’s getting to where we remember the silly things and the good things.
“Everybody here is connected.”
First Baptist held its regular Sunday services a block away under a white tent. As services wrapped up, Baine Serna arrived at the feast. Serna lived in Sutherland Springs for several years, and returned to stand with his former neighbors.
“As horrific as that tragedy was, that mass murderer, he didn’t win,” he said. “To see people love one another and care about one another, I just think that’s really special. And it really shows you the power of the human spirit that love does conquer hate.”
A Christmas tree was being decorated on one side of the dining room. Each person was asked to place an ornament. A second tree set up outside is bare. On the table next to Tammy Read lay 26 angel ornaments.
“The local dollar stores donated these angels,” she said. “… When family members of the deceased come here today – if they come – then we will give them an angel and they place an angel on the tree.”
Gail Uhlig is the aunt of Crystal Holcombe. She’s with several relatives, carrying the angels with the Holcombe family names to the tree. Crystal Holcombe was pregnant when she and her three children were killed in the church. Uhlig says she’s glad she’s here.
“It feels like you’re not alone,” she said. “Right now, I’d probably be at home but here I’m among people that are reaching out to help me – not just me – but everyone in the community. It feels good; you become closer to one another.”
The support comes from beyond the town’s borders. Drivers on U.S. Highway 87 still stop and leave flowers at a growing memorial. Terri Smith said nearby towns have been reaching out, and have joined them for the Thanksgiving feast.
“I hope that the people that have come here today from out of town will continue to stop in and say a hello and remember us,” she said. “Not because of the tragedy, because we’re a community that’s very united and we’re here.”
There’s a long road ahead for the people of Sutherland Springs. But residents say, again and again, there’s a sense of resiliency and love here that will help them move forward.