How Uvalde’s Pastors Are Offering Comfort After Shooting

Now is the time to visit the hospital.

That’s what Rev. Doug Swimmer’s wife said a few minutes after he walked into their house in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday around noon. Swimmer had just been getting his oil changed. These are the mundane things that make life feel important. He’d noticed the cruisers zipping by as he drove home—but the West Texas town is not even two hours’ drive from Mexico, so it’s not rare to see Border Patrol going somewhere in a hurry. Swimmer was greeted by a roaring city as he arrived home. The sirens could be heard throughout the area, and the noises would carry on in Uvalde for several hours. The news was turned on by his wife.

“They said they’re starting to send students to the hospital, and as soon as she heard that she told me, ‘You need to go to the hospital now,’” Swimmer says, describing the minutes he learned that a gunman had stormed Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, in a massacre that would leave 19 children and two teachers dead. “And so I headed toward the hospital.”

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Officials were shocked when he said he was a pastor within the church. He was taken upstairs and placed in a waiting room. The soft-spoken, quiet pastor explained, breaking down, as he entered the room. The people in that room, the families of children who had gone to school that morning like usual but now might no longer be alive, included people he knows—his congregants, people he waves to around town, folks he’s stood next to in line at the grocery store. Swimmer took a breath to gather himself, and then, in his pulpit voice, said the thing that came to mind: “Who needs prayer?”

Within seconds, dozens of people had surrounded him, he says, the way the football team huddles together on crisp fall Friday nights in Uvalde’s Honey Bowl Stadium. Many of the people in the huddle wept. Some were shaking. Swimmer tried his best to pray loudest he could.

However, what can we pray for when that happens?

“Grace. God’s grace. God’s mercy,” Swimmer says. “Because there [are] no words that can help.”

While he was moving around, he asked family members to ask if he could offer prayers for their families. It was welcomed by many. Many others did not like it.

“I even walked up to a lady,” Swimmer says. “I said, ‘Can we pray for you?’ The lady turned around to me and said, ‘It’s too late for prayer right now.’”

Millions went to sleep Tuesday night baffled, confused and deep troubled. How could 19 schoolchildren be killed? What would happen to their fathers and mothers? What would life be like in this little city, where the equivalent of more than three percent of new residents added to the city’s population in the last decade had been wiped out in one day? But what are for most people thought exercises and unanswerable questions, are immediate concerns for the leaders of Uvalde’s religious communities.

According to the Uvalde County Census of American Religion 2020, approximately 85% of respondents identified themselves as Christians. There are at least one Christian church per 750 people. (Uvalde does not have a mosque or a synagogue that appears in Google listings; about 15% of respondents in the survey were “religiously unaffiliated” and 1% practice a religion other than Christianity.) In the images of the victims that their families shared with reporters, one child—Jacklyn Cazares, who was set to turn 10 in June but instead was killed along with her cousin and best friend Annabelle Rodriguez, 10—appears dressed in a white dress and veil for her First Holy Communion.

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Researchers suggest that religious communities might play an important role following the tragic events in Uvalde this week. One of the few who survive intense stress, such as this week’s shooting in Uvalde can eventually develop neuroplasticity. This is a process that changes the way information gets processed and affects the brain. Dr. Harold G. Koenig of Duke University, a doctor, says there are many benefits to faith in crisis situations. Those moments are when some—about a quarter of individuals, according to his research—find their faith strengthening significantly; the same percentage experience a loss or decline in faith. He and Dr. John Peteet and Tyler VanderWeele from Harvard will soon publish research and data that shows the positive effects faith has on most people who are going through a difficult time. He says that while there may be situations where religion causes more harm than good, these situations are rare.

“You see this turning to faith and trying to use one’s religious beliefs to make sense of it,” says Koenig, who was in Pensacola, Fla., training Navy chaplains, when we spoke by phone this week. “There’s this vast array of research showing that religious involvement is involved in virtually every aspect of mental, social, behavioral, and physical health and resilience during times of high stress.”

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The Rev. Tony Gruben, pastor of Uvalde’s Baptist Temple Church, had been in San Antonio at a doctor’s appointment when he received a text Tuesday morning from a member of his congregation who is a school counselor at Robb Elementary, which is less than two miles from his church. The text was spare and alarming: “It said, ‘Active shooter. Pray.’” Gruben tells TIME.

Gruben didn’t text back, afraid that a reply notification might point the shooter to his friend’s whereabouts, but he did pray. He thought about the way his friend (whom he asked not to identify by name, fearing attention might distract from the vital work she’s doing) cared for the emotional needs of the children at that school with such warmth that she has to do her grocery shopping at night if she doesn’t want to get mobbed by kids asking for hugs. Gruben was driving back to Uvalde after a long drive that took him about an hour. He saw what appeared to be at least 100 law enforcement vehicles flying past him with lights on and sirens blasting. “I was going a little bit over the speed limit as well,” he says. “But all I could do was drive, make phone calls, and pray.”

Don McLaughlin, the Uvalde mayor called Gruben while he was on his way back. After dropping his wife off at her home, Gruben went to the local funeral parlor and picked up another pastor. McLaughlin called Gruben and asked him to join him in prayer right away, as he arrived at the funeral parlor that was transformed into an unruly command center. Gruben believes this moment was unpredicted.

Georgina C. Pérez, a Democrat on the Texas State Board of Education, represents a district that includes not only Uvalde, but also El Paso and Odessa, which means it has experienced three mass shootings, two of which involved a school, since 2019. From her grim experience, she was able to predict the next steps easily: the calls from politicians for “hardening” schools, the gruesome reality that it would take hours to identify some of the victims, given what the kind of weapon used can do. It is also clear to her how crucial faith in such an emergency can be.

“In small towns you have the church and you have the school,” says Pérez. “At schools, everybody wears every hat. From the principal to the classroom teachers to the cafeteria lady, to the bus driver and the custodian, everybody will do anything for their kids, whether it means I’m the fifth-period history teacher and in the afternoon I’ll be riding the bus, or I’m the morning reading teacher and this Saturday I’ll be coaching the softball game. And it’s the same thing at our churches. They are essential.”

For Gruben, who then made his way to the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center, where some families would wait until around midnight to receive word about their children’s fates, what Uvalde needed from him was one simple yet crucial thing: “There is a power in the ministry of what we call presence,” he says. “Just being there.”

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The clergy members who did not have personal relationships with the families tried mostly to “help the helpers,” he says, supporting school officials with the encouragement that God was working through them. “Even as ministers, we need to keep quiet as much as possible and just say, ‘I love you and I’m here for you.’ And don’t offer anything more than that,” he says. “The more we say in those situations, it’s not helpful.”

Doug Swimmer, who was listening as people tried to understand each other while going through nightmares, listened in the background to Uvalde Memorial’s minutes turn into hours. Swimmer witnessed hospital staff bring in a minor injured child to the waiting area. Swimmer stated that the child was stunned when his relatives grabbed him and kissed. Other families weren’t so fortunate. Swimmer still hears the screaming. Uvalde Memorial Hospital received 15 victims of the gunman’s attack on Tuesday. This included 11 children as well as four adults. Sixteen were transferred to San Antonio hospitals for further intensive care. Eight were discharged. One boy and one child, both boys, died at the arrival.

That night, Swimmer’s church, the Potter’s House Christian Fellowship Church, held a prayer service in its sanctuary two miles from the school; three children who survived the shooting are members of the congregation, and two of those who died had visited the church as relatives or friends of members.

As many members of Uvalde’s clergy began to try to coordinate the care needed in grief-stricken and shocked homes all over the city, Gruben—as the leader of a small congregation in which no one lost immediate family members in the shooting—”drew the black bean,” as he puts it, and was asked to speak with reporters and government agencies. His coordination of a Uvalde County Fairplex prayer service was a key part. Gruben, who is a leader in secluded congregations that had lost many parishioners to the tragedy, was asked to speak with reporters and government agencies.

Expert perspectives from experts on the best ways faith can help people through trauma support this instinct.

“I would advise them to listen, to meet people where they are and not to provide advice, to listen and try to understand,” Koenig says. “Let them talk. They should talk. Although they will process it naturally, it may take them some time. It is important that they have a secure environment in which they are understood, cared about, loved and listened to. The last thing you want to do is try to explain something, try to defend God in this…because there is no defense.”

It’s also there that Swimmer has settled, after that horrifying afternoon trying to comfort families at Uvalde Memorial. In the days since, he’s been called to homes and businesses, to sit with people, to pray, to bear witness. He thinks of the mother at the hospital, who claimed it was too late for her to pray and wonders what has happened to her baby.

According to him, the residents of this area are trying to keep their lungs open. These people are now facing an entirely new kind of life. One without their daughters and sons, or their nephews and nieces. Uvalde has people who must write the obituaries of children who lived too short to realize their dreams.

At dawn Thursday morning, someone had driven 21 white crosses in the ground near Robb Elementary. Swimmer is now asking questions about why.

“You can’t answer the why. You don’t know what you are going to say. You can’t,” he says. “And on this side of eternity we may never know the why.”

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