Ten-year-old Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia was planning to recite a Bible verse, Deuteronomy 6:18, the Primera Iglecia Bautista’s (First Baptist Church’s) Sunday service on May 29. After a shooter entered Robb Elementary school on May 24, she was shot and killed along with 18 other students and two teachers. In her place, her three Sunday school classmates recited the verse with Ellie behind them.
Uvalde was filled with sorrow as many of its residents attended Sunday church services to mourn the death of 21 community members. In this devout town—85% of people identify as some denomination of Christianity, according to a Public Religion Research Institute 2020 Census of American Religion—many have sought healing through faith. Some religiously affiliated counselors from Ohio were sent to Texas to aid those who suffered grief.
The photos of Lexi Rubio (left) and Eliahna Garcia, both students at Robb Elementary, who were all killed in the mass shooting, are shown during a Iglecia Bautista worship service on May 29, 2022.
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TIME Sunday morning attended four services at Uvalde Church. The message that was common to all of them was forgiveness.
At the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church’s first Sunday morning mass, Father Eduardo Morales reminded the congregation of the biblical story of Jesus Christ’s ascension—the story of when Jesus left Earth and rose to Heaven after the crucifixion. Jesus’s disciples would never know him as flesh and blood again, Morales said, but they would know him spiritually. “We must share this with the families of those who have lost a loved one this week,” he said. “The ones that we have lost will always be with us… As we continue to talk about them, they continue to live.”
David Hernandez prays alongside his wife Mary on the Temple Cristiano church, May 29, 2022.
David Butow at TIME
On May 29, 2022, three women listen to the sermon delivered by St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
David Butow at TIME
A large and elegant space was filled with more than 100 people. Many of them were crying. They sang together and hugged one another all through the service.
A few streets away, at the Templo Cristiano (“Christian Temple”), a Tree City Church was hosting a Spanish service that began with a remembrance to the victims. “We’re all in shock here, all of us, we’re all crying for our family, our friends, we’re all suffering, we’re all crying,” a woman leading the start of the service said in Spanish. “We have to remember that Jesus also cried.”
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After prayer and song, a member of the national Tree City Church’s crisis response team, who traveled to Uvalde from Ohio and was introduced as a licensed professional counselor and elementary school counselor, offered practical advice about signs of stress to pair with the spiritual guidance: “If you experience difficult breathing or chest pain,” she said in English, pausing for a translator, “with these types of symptoms, you may need to seek medical treatment.”
At the St. Philips Episcopal Church in the meantime, white-robed clergy were getting ready for the 10:30 AM Eucharist. Before walking down the aisle, the members of the stone church hugged and embraced one another. Some choir members were crying. “This community responds together in times like this,” says Beverly Heyen, a 15-year resident of Uvalde and member of St. Philips. “Our hearts go out to everyone, and everyone is connected in some way… and this church is a part of that.”
An obituary in a central Uvalde park, May 26, 2022
Heyen states that Uvalde’s backbone is made up of schools and churches. St. Phillips is one example of a local church that partners with others for food drives or other community service. Before Sunday worship, the churches hosted events for community members and provided spaces to pray. The First Presbyterian Church held a “Parking Lot Prayers” event on Friday, inviting members to write a prayer on a ribbon that could be tied to a chainlink fence. The Town Square was filled with people praying, while Sacred Heart’s backyard theater allowed people to sing, dance, remember and pray for those who had been killed.
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Ellie’s Bible reading was to be done by Primera Iglecia Bautista members. They prepared sack lunches for everyone who asked. At 11 a.m. on Sunday, the church—a modest building with plain beige walls and pews that aren’t bolted in yet—was filled with about 80 people. The congregation was led in prayer by Pastor Carlos Cisneros. They were told by him that each Sunday sermon is prepared one week ahead. Though Tuesday’s tragedy changed the tone of the service dramatically, he opted to stick to his plan to quote Bible verses from the book of Isaiah “because all of God’s words are applicable,” he says.
Prayers are offered by churchgoers after Sunday services at Iglecia Bautista Church in May 29th, 2022.
David Butow at TIME
Cisneros fixated on one line of the verse: “Here am I. 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 am I, send me,’” he said. “I will take a plate of food to someone, I will go and pray for someone, I will call someone just to say I love them. Here am I, send me.”
Outside, President Joe Biden’s motorcade drove by on the way to Sacred Heart Church for its noon service. Primera Iglecia Bautista’s congregation was captivated by Ellie and her class singing a song, but they didn’t notice.
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