UVALDE, Texas — In some ways, it felt like a thousand pastors’ meetings I’d been to before. Seventeen ministers from around a dozen churches met in a church fellowship hall on a Wednesday morning around white plastic folding tables. Men and women shook hands, hugged and sat down together. We went around the tables introducing ourselves.
But this was not an ordinary clergy meet-up. We sat less than two miles from Robb Elementary School, where the day before a gunman killed 19 children and 2 adults.
Together these pastors faced an impossible question: What do you do when you are charged with the spiritual care of a town confronting an incomprehensible horror?
On my two-hour drive to Uvalde from my home near Austin, I listened to an interview on NPR about the need for stricter gun control policies. But as I neared the church, my signal scrambled and I was left with static. It felt like a symbol somehow.
Here, in Uvalde, policy debates, however important, were drowned out. Here, there was only the tense and tired aftermath of tragedy. Tony Gruben, the pastor of Baptist Temple Church and leader of the meeting, found out about the mass shooting as it was happening. He was about an hour and a half from Uvalde, running errands. One of his church members, who is also his close friend, is the school counselor at Robb. She texted him: “Please pray. In lock down. Shooter on campus.” He didn’t text back, worried a text ping might alert an intruder if she was hiding.
A little while later, he got a call from Uvalde’s mayor. The phone connection was weak and broke up, but Gruben heard enough to know things were really bad and that he should hurry back to town. He spent the night alongside another pastor counseling families and, as he said, “helping the helpers,” by offering what he called the “ministry of presence and prayer” to law enforcement officers, town leaders and teachers at Robb. Like every other local pastor I spoke with, he didn’t get home until around midnight.
The Guardian recently summed up “thoughts and prayers” as “obfuscation and inaction.” After the Uvalde shooting, the National Parents Union called for policy changes and “more than thoughts and prayers.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has been criticized for saying that he was “lifting up in prayer” children and families in Uvalde, while also taking large contributions from the NRA.
But as that debate raged online and in the broader culture, these pastors in Uvalde turned to prayer to help people respond to this tragedy.
Sam Garza, a pastor and youth worker at First United Methodist Church, told me, “If people just say ‘thoughts and prayers’ or put something like that in their Facebook” profile and then don’t give another thought to Uvalde, then, he said, “that’s not helpful.” But he says, prayer spurs action. “In prayer, we find needs,” he said. If people pray that “Aunt Tilly’s transmission” needs to be repaired, he prays for that, but then, he said, “we also need to help her with her transmission”: to find and pay for a mechanic.
Yet, he says, prayer is also a powerful act in and of itself. He told me, “In prayer, I find the answers I need or the strength I need.”
Gruben told the pastors at the meeting that he felt like the town needed an event, space to pray and grieve together. He talked to a local judge who offered the use of the County Fairplex. He and the other pastors at the meeting were well aware that this work of presence and prayer was for the long haul. They spoke about how in the future they would need other services where they would honor the victims and seek healing. But for this one, they said, they wanted to keep it simple and quiet. “People need to cry,” one pastor said.
Then Gruben opened the floor for anyone to pray. The prayers kept coming and coming. The pastors prayed together for around 40 minutes, many weeping. They prayed for comfort. They prayed to be filled “with love, compassion and grace.” One prayed, “Let us know when to speak and when to be silent.” Many chimed in, “Yes, Lord.” “We pray for the peace of our city.” “Comfort the brokenhearted.” “There is not one thing that has happened that has shaken your throne.”
“Lord,” one person prayed, “this looks big and insurmountable.” Another prayed for the “little eyes that have seen so much evil.” They prayed for unity, that the city would come together as one. A pastor got up and put his arm around another as he cried.
Lee Young, a pastor who had driven in from San Antonio, prayed: “We know the nation is looking at us. Give pastors wisdom as everyone tries to use this as a political football.”
I asked him what he meant by that. He told me that the church needs to stay out of politics. He thinks that one reason people have left the church is that it is too focused on “legislating morality” instead of ministering to souls. Whether pressure on the church comes from the left or the right, about gun control or abortion, he thinks the focus should be, first and foremost, on relationships and people. He told me that too many people “weaponize tragic situations” for political gain.
I also talked with Neftali Barboza, the pastor of Iglesia Nueva Jericó, a bilingual church. Barboza’s son is a student at Robb Elementary. On a whim, he decided to take him home early on Tuesday after attending the school assembly there. He told me he left the school with his son about 10 minutes before the shooting began. He spent that night outside of the funeral home, trying to reunite parents with their missing kids. He described a chaotic scene marked by “panic and desperation” as parents searched for their children.
I asked Barboza, “Do we need better gun control?” He replied, “We need Jesus.” It is “the presence of God that changes hearts,” he said.
When I arrived at Robb Elementary, Senator Cruz was there giving an interview, talking about the need for armed police officers in schools.
John Lira introduced himself to me there. He is running for Congress in Uvalde’s district. He told me he is Catholic and that faith is very important to him but that “thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
“Folks will say, ‘Let’s not turn this political,’” he told me. “I think that’s a cop-out.” Though he carries a gun nearly all the time, he said, he is for “responsible gun ownership through mandatory training and licensing,” background checks and other gun control measures. He also emphasized the need for policies that provide mental health support. We need “thoughts and prayers and policies,” he said.
Right after we talked, a couple named Pam and David Wong approached the police line, holding a large green wooden cross. They wove their way through throngs of media people, trying to find a spot to place it. A law enforcement officer took the cross and laid it in front of the school sign.
The Wongs are volunteers at a church in Conroe, a town five hours away. Their church works with homeless people, giving them dorm space in the church building. They told me that formerly homeless men made the cross. On the back was a message for the community of Uvalde, explaining that the cross was meant to be “a reminder that Jesus cares and loves you all very much. We are all praying for you.” Pam Wong told me they had driven to the school because “we wanted them to know that they are not alone.”
Sam Garza invited me to drop by the rec room that his church had recently created. It was a place, Garza told me, for youth “just to be kids.” Now they are adding spaces for grief counseling. Two boys, a 7th grader and a sophomore, were playing table tennis. There were snacks and an espresso machine. Parents and kids were milling about and talking. It felt peaceful, one of the only signs of normalcy I saw that day. Three small kids were huddled together, smiling, playing video games. One of them had been at Robb Elementary during the shooting.
The rec room will be open all summer. Over and over, I heard from pastors in Uvalde that once everyone else in America moves on, their real work begins. In the prayer meeting that morning they prayed, “Give us mercy, grace and wisdom because the hardest days are to come.” Garza told me that every new school year, every Halloween, every holiday and a decade from now when children who died should be graduating from high school, these families will still face loss. That, he says, is when the church needs to keep showing up for people.
The prayer event at the Fairplex that night was packed. There were hundreds of people in attendance. They sang. They lifted their hands in worship. As the pastors I had met that morning prayed from the podium, in English and Spanish, people yelled in agreement, “Yes Lord!”
Gov. Greg Abbott was there, as were Senator Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, though none of them spoke publicly. I saw a group of people crowd around a man in uniform, “Sheriff” stitched on his lapel; they laid their hands on him and prayed as he fought back tears.
At the close of the event, a pastor played the hymn “Amazing Grace” on the violin. I was seated next to the family of one of the children who had been killed. They collapsed in tears, their muffled wails blending with the song. A pastor I had met that morning placed his hands on one family member’s shoulders and prayed. A woman, seemingly a stranger, came and sat by another family member and embraced her. They wept together.
It is hard to sum up how deeply religious the response to this tragedy in Uvalde has been. Pastor Jaime Cabralez of Jesus Christ Revealed Ministries told me that he went to the town plaza soon after the shooting and 150 people showed up spontaneously to pray. As I walked around the town, people were praying. Teenagers were holding signs on Main Street that read “Prayers for Uvalde.” Sam Garza told me prayer groups were popping up all over the city.
There is a saying in the Christian tradition that comes from monastic practice: “Ora et labora.” Pray and work. It tells us that prayer and work, contemplation and action, are held together and inform one another. In Uvalde, I heard many times that “prayer is powerful.” I believe that. And I believe that through prayer, God sends us into the hard work of loving others, in action and in policy. I have prayed for Uvalde and the victims there. I also think we desperately need far tighter gun restrictions in the United States and that this is an urgent moral issue. As a priest and as a mother, I believe it is imperative that lawmakers act to prevent the next mass shooting and address America’s gun problem.
Yet to say we need political action is not to say that it will ever be enough. We also need youth rec rooms. We need people who show up and stay with hurting families till late in the night. We need people who love their city and their church and pour their lives out for the people around them. And we need changed hearts.
The task before the pastors I met in Uvalde is to be present, to comfort, to grieve and to pray, for months and years to come. Prayer is what gave men and women strength as they helped search for missing children and sat with grieving neighbors. Prayer is what led a Methodist church to make sure kids have a place to play games all summer. Prayer is what encouraged a church to offer beds to homeless men and women. It moved them to make a cross, and the Wongs to drive across Texas to leave a note of encouragement to a town in crisis. Prayer is what allowed this small community to come together, to plan and hold a vigil, to mourn.
America has always been a nation of religious zeal and a nation of violence, and the way these realities have interacted is often complex and grievous. Faith in America is complicated. It motivates, at times, courageous action but also inaction. It fosters unity but even within faith communities, people disagree deeply. It yields breathtaking acts of love but can also be manipulated for cynical ends. It drives personal and political change and it can be a cop-out.
Uvalde is grieving and heartbroken. Some want a revival. Some want mental health services. Some want gun control. But every single person I talked to agreed on one thing: They could use your thoughts and prayers.