Santa Fe Church Community Reflects On Texas Shooting

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 7:03 am

Sunday morning, people in Santa Fe, Texas, flocked to local churches, seeking comfort after this week's high school shooting that killed 10 people and injured 13 others.

The residents of this deeply-religious community are just starting to process their emotions, as they also look for answers as to how such a thing could happen.

"Lord I need you, oh I need you," sang the choir at Arcadia First Baptist Church. It was the refrain of many who are turning to faith to deal with the grim reality that this familiar, and tragic, American routine has now come to their town.

Pamela Pannell's grandson would have been in the art class where witnesses said the shooting started, but he was in another room that day for Advanced Placement testing.

"That's the hard part," she said. "To come that close to losing him."

Pannell held back tears, saying her heart goes out to the people who have lost a loved one in the shooting.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attended the Sunday service. Later, he talked about what he called "obvious" ideas to prevent future shootings, including tightening school security and keeping a closer watch on who leaves and enters school grounds. Abbott has also pointed to a mental health program that intervenes when kids show warning signs that they might become violent.

For Pannell and other churchgoers here, the answer is simpler.

"We need God back in our schools," she said.

Almost two decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court told the Santa Fe Independent School District that it had to stop allowing student-led prayers at school events. It's a case that still reverberates in the community today.

Just down the road from Pannell's church, at Calvary Crossroad Church, Pastor Del Toler told his congregation to think about that court case the next time they get a chance to vote. He said there might be a number of ways to prevent a shooting, but religion should be at the center.

"I think the church is a focal point," he said, "and I think we've gotten the cart before the horse, and we want the other things, but we don't want God."

His thoughts about changing gun laws reflect familiar attitudes in Texas.

"Guns helped shape America," he said. "Guns have insured our freedom. It's the heart in a man that steers him to do wrong."

Eighteen-year-old Santa Fe High School student Megan Dunford is one of Toler's church members. She was friends with Sabika Sheikh, the Pakistani exchange student killed in the shooting.

"It's been really different, knowing that she's gone," Dunford said. She described Sheikh as instantly friendly, someone who one day just decided to sit with Dunford at lunch and start talking.

"I liked everything [about her]," Dunford said. "She made me laugh and stuff, she was very helpful."

As the national debate swirls about how to prevent another school shooting, Dunford is just trying to deal with the loss of a friend, talking it out with her family, like so many others in this grieving community.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Residents in Santa Fe, Texas, are still grappling with the school shooting that left 10 people dead on Friday. Today, speaking on ABC's "This Week," Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick laid the blame on American culture - not access to guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

DAN PATRICK: We have devalued life, whether it's through abortion, whether it's the breakup of families, through violent movies and particularly violent video games.

GONYEA: And during church services this morning, survivors and their families tried to find answers of their own. Houston Public Radio's Travis Bubenik joined them and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARCADIA FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH CHOIR: (Singing) Lord, I need you, oh, I need you.

TRAVIS BUBENIK, BYLINE: The choir at Arcadia First Baptist Church sings the refrain of many in Santa Fe who are turning to faith to deal with the grim reality that this familiar and tragic American routine has now come to their town. Pamela Pannell's grandson would have been in the art class where witnesses say the shooting started, but he was in another room that day for AP testing.

PAMELA PANNELL: And that's the hard part - to come that close to losing him and everything that's going on with the ones that were lost. My heart goes out to all of them.

BUBENIK: Texas Governor Greg Abbott attended the Arcadia First Baptist service and later talked about what he called obvious ideas to prevent future shootings - hardening school security, better control of who comes in and out of schools. He's pointed to one mental health program that intervenes with kids who show warning signs that they might become violent. But for Pannell and other church-goers here, the answer is simpler.

PANNELL: We need God back in our schools.

BUBENIK: Almost two decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court told the Santa Fe school district it had to stop allowing student-led prayers at school events. Just down the road from Pannell's church, at Calvary Crossroads Church, pastor Del Toler tells his congregation to think about that the next time they get a chance to vote. He says there might be a number of ways to prevent future shootings, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEL TOLER: I think the church is the focal point, and I think we've gotten the cart before the horse, and we want the other things, but we don't want God.

BUBENIK: And Toler's thoughts about changing gun laws...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOLER: Guns helped shape America. Guns have ensured our freedom. It's the heart in a man that steers him to do wrong.

BUBENIK: Eighteen-year-old Santa Fe High student Megan Dunford is one of Toler's church members. She was friends with Sabika Sheikh, the Pakistani exchange student killed in the shooting.

MEGAN DUNFORD: It's been really different knowing that she's gone.

BUBENIK: I asked Dunford what she liked about her friend.

DUNFORD: I liked everything. I mean, she made me laugh and stuff. She was very helpful.

BUBENIK: As the national debate swirls about how to prevent another school shooting, Dunford is just trying to deal with the loss of a friend, like so many others in this grieving community. For NPR News, I'm Travis Bubenik in Santa Fe, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.