Uvalde loves the first Sunday since the school shooting

JOne-year-old Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia planned to recite a Bible verse, Deuteronomy 6:18, the Primera Iglecia Bautista (First Baptist Church) Sunday service on May 29. But plans changed after a gunman entered Robb’s elementary school on May 24, killing her, 18 of her classmates and two teachers. Instead, three of her Sunday school friends recited the verse in her honor, with a picture of Ellie projected behind them.

Much of Uvalde spent Sunday morning attending church services, together mourning the loss of 21 beloved members of the community. In this devout city — 85% of people identify with a Christian denomination, according to a 2020 Census of American Religion from the Public Religion Research Institute — many have sought faith healing. In some churches, religiously-affiliated licensed counselors have been brought in from other parts of Texas and as far away as Ohio to provide bereavement support.

Photographs of Lexi Rubio, left, and Eliahna Garcia, students of Robb Elementary School who were killed in the recent mass shooting, are shown during a service at Iglecia Bautista Church on May 29 2022.

David Butow—Redux

Read more: “It’s too late for prayer.” Uvalde faith leaders are called to help a community face the unimaginable

At the four church services TIME attended in Uvalde on Sunday morning, a common message was clear: Church leaders preached forgiveness and assurances that deceased loved ones would be seen again.

At the first Sunday morning Mass of the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, Father Eduardo Morales reminded the congregation of the biblical story of the ascension of Jesus Christ – the story of when Jesus left Earth and ascended to heaven after the crucifixion. Jesus’ followers would never know him again as flesh and blood, Morales said, but they would know him spiritually. “We need to share this with the families of those who lost loved ones this week,” he said. “Those we lost will always be with us…As we continue to talk about them, they live on.”

David Hernandez, left, prays with his wife Mary at the Templo Cristiano church on May 29, 2022.

David Butow for TIME

Three women listen to a sermon at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on May 29, 2022.

David Butow for TIME

The large, elegant hall was filled with at least 100 people and members of the public were in tears. But they sang and hugged throughout the service.

A few blocks away, at Templo Cristiano (Christian Temple), a church in Tree City, a Spanish service began with remembrance of the victims of the shooting. “We are all in shock here, all of us, we are all crying for our family, our friends, we are all in pain, we are all crying,” a woman who led the start of the service said in Spanish. “We must remember that Jesus also wept.”

Read more: Here are the victims of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas

After the prayer and song, a member of the Tree City National Church Crisis Response Team, who traveled to Uvalde from Ohio and was introduced as a licensed professional counselor and counselor to elementary school, offered practical advice on signs of stress to associate with spiritual guidance: ‘If you’re having difficulty breathing or chest pain,’ she said in English, stopping for a translator , “with these types of symptoms, you may need to see a doctor.”

Meanwhile, at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, white-robed clergy prepared for the 10:30 a.m. Eucharist. Outside the stone church, members hugged each other before walking down the aisle to the church. Some members of the choir were in tears. “This community responds together in times like this,” says Beverly Heyen, a 15-year resident of Uvalde and a member of St. Philip’s. “Our hearts go out to everyone, and everyone is connected in some way…and this church is part of that.”

A memorial in a park in the center of Uvalde on May 26, 2022.

David Butow—Redux

Churches and schools are the backbone of Uvalde, says Heyen. St. Philip’s, for example, partners with other churches in the area for food drives and other community services. Ahead of Sunday services, churches across the city held community events and opened prayer spaces. First Presbyterian Church held a “Prayers in the Parking Lot” event on Friday, inviting members to write a prayer on a ribbon that could be tied to a chain-link fence. On Saturday evening, people gathered in the town square to pray, while the Sacred Heart set up its backyard theater so people could gather, sing, pray and remember those who have been killed.

Read more: ‘There is a void.’ Great-grandfather of Lexi Rubio, victim of the Uvalde shooting, remembers his 10 years of life

Members of the Primera Iglecia Bautista, where Ellie was supposed to do her Bible reading, spent Saturday preparing packed lunches to give away to anyone who wanted one. By 11 a.m. on Sunday, the church – a modest building with simple beige walls and pews that are not yet bolted down – was packed with about 80 people. Pastor Carlos Cisneros stood before the congregation and led them in prayer. He told them that he started preparing each Sunday sermon a week in advance. Although Tuesday’s tragedy drastically changed the tone of the service, he chose to stick to his plan of quoting Bible verses from the book of Isaiah ‘because all of God’s words are applicable,’ he says .

Worshipers pray after services at Iglecia Bautista Church on Sunday, May 29, 2022.

David Butow for TIME

Cisneros settled on one line of the verse: “Here I am. Send me. The line, he told the congregation, reflects the spirit of the people of Uvalde. “Uvalde is strong because we are people who say, ‘Here I am, send me,'” he said. “I’ll bring someone a plate of food, I’ll go pray for someone, I’ll call someone just to tell them I love them. Here I am, send me.

Outside, President Joe Biden’s motorcade passed in the direction of the Church of the Sacred Heart for his midday service. Midway through a hymn, the Primera Iglecia Bautista congregation barely noticed, instead focusing on the community gathered on the simple wooden pews to remember Ellie and her classmates, joining their voices in song. .

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com.

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