On the Sunday morning of November 5, 2017, a gunman entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and opened fire on dozens of congregants. The casualties—26 dead, 20 wounded—were shocking even to a nation that has grown inured to such incidents. It was the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history, and the deadliest in Texas’s.
Veteran Texas journalist Joe Holley, a longtime staffer at the Houston Chronicle and a contributor to Texas Monthly, drove from Austin to Sutherland Springs as soon as he heard the news. Over the past two years he has returned to the town again and again to report his new book, Sutherland Springs: God, Guns, and Hope in a Small Texas Town (Hachette Books, March 17). Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the book’s first chapter.
Sarah Holcombe Slavin was running late for church. The fact that she and her husband, Rocky, lived fifteen miles out in the country and that their daughter, Elene, was two years old had something to do with her tardiness. So also did a certain spiritual malaise she had been feeling for, who knows, maybe a couple of years. On this November morning, however, her dad was the fill-in preacher, and her mom would be giving the announcements. She couldn’t miss that.
Sarah was thirty-three, although with her dyed-purple hair, her small stature, and her penchant for faded jeans and T-shirts, many assumed she was a teenager. A country girl, she had grown up in a large extended family outside Floresville, a little ranching town with a frontier square, a venerable stone courthouse, and a large concrete peanut on the courthouse lawn (commemorating what used to be the area’s cash crop). Like most small-town kids, she had cheered for the Mighty Tigers football team on Friday nights and hung out with friends at the local Sonic Drive-In. She had worked at Dairy Queen, where she was known for her smile and her courtesy. She and Rocky, a computer geek, married early.
She was a math major in college and had taught high school math after graduating, but a year in the classroom was enough to convince her that teaching wasn’t for her. She quit to work with her dad, Bryan Holcombe, who made custom canvas covers for cattle trailers in an old, Army surplus building in the country. Amid the whir of industrial-sized sewing machines, surrounded by giant rolls of tarp, she got to know her dad not only as a parent but also as a friend and mentor. While Sarah worked, little Elene contented herself in the “baby jail,” a penned-off area against one wall with toys, a TV, and colored chalk for scribbling on the blackboard on the wall beside the “jail.” Some days, Sarah’s sister-in-law, Jenni Holcombe, came out to the shop. Her baby girl Noah Grace sat and played in the baby jail with Elene while their mothers visited.
Like Paul the apostle, Bryan was a tentmaker of sorts, when he wasn’t preaching or playing his ukulele and sharing his faith with inmates in the Wilson County Jail. His American Canvas Works customers were local farmers and ranchers, truck drivers, small-business people in places like Floresville and Stockdale and Karnes City. They were small-town, hardworking people. A native of Victoria, Texas, near the Gulf Coast, Bryan was one of them.
As a child, Sarah detested church, but her parents made her go. “I would fight, because they made me wear a dress, and I thought I already knew all the Sunday school lessons anyway,” she recalled. “Sometime in my early teenage years, I started actually enjoying going to church. I started reading the Bible for myself instead of just learning what I was taught. I got really into it and became a bit pushy and arrogant about it all. What I believed was right, and anybody who disagreed was wrong.”
Maturity, she said, brought a bit of humility and an acknowledgment that she didn’t know everything. For her own life, she settled on a kind of divine wager worthy of Pascal’s. “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing,” the French philosopher had written. Sarah agreed.
Her parents’ deep devotion made her a bit uncomfortable at times, and yet she saw how their faith affected people around them. Her mother, Karla Holcombe, was in charge of Vacation Bible School at church. She fed the homeless and made weekly bread runs for the church’s food pantry. Bryan had his jail ministry. As a young wife and mother, as a member of a close extended family, Sarah wanted her own life to be as purposeful and as contented as her parents’ lives seemed to be.
She made a conscious decision in the tradition of William James, the agile and profound American thinker who devoted much of his life to pondering “the reality of the unseen.” She would nurture a will to believe.
In Sarah’s words, “I decided that I wasn’t sure whether Christianity was true, but that it could be true and that it was beneficial to believe it was true, whether it was really true or not.”
Doubt assailed her Christian pragmatism during her late twenties. Was there really a God, and was he truly the God she read about in the New Testament? Why would he allow terrible things to happen? Although she laughs about her musings now, she went so far as to think that maybe God was some kind of alien life-form.
“So, anyway,” she recalled, “my prayers became more along the lines of ‘God, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I really would like to know if you are real and if you really love us and know us each personally, and why some things in the Bible are so crazy, and I would like you to speak to me somehow to let me know, without scaring the crap out of me if possible, because in the Bible whenever someone hears from God or an angel they are always scared to death.’ ”
She was waiting for answers, but other concerns kept her occupied—her beautiful, little dark-haired daughter; her marriage; her daily work with her dad; her extended family. Three generations of Holcombes all lived near each other on a wooded three-hundred-acre tract of land fifteen miles outside Floresville. They called it “the farm.” Sarah and Rocky and the other younger Holcombes lived in double-wide mobile homes. The grandparents, in their mid-eighties at the time of the shooting, lived in a spacious log cabin on the property.
On that Sunday morning, Sarah got Elene buckled into her car seat and headed to Sutherland Springs, twenty minutes away. (Rocky usually didn’t attend church.) “I wasn’t really worried about being late because, honestly, I just really didn’t care that much,” she recalled months later. She also knew that starting times at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs could be a bit flexible.
But then, something happened, something strange. As she drove along the winding country road, cows grazing in pastures, trees turning to fall colors, she felt what she could only describe as “a really strong presence in the car with me.” It was so strong, she glanced over at the passenger seat.
As strange as it was, the presence wasn’t frightening. It was somehow reassuring. “I heard God tell me—not audibly but just somehow heard on some other level—‘I am here, and I love you,’ ” she recalled. “I don’t have words to describe that moment, other than pure peace and comfort and joy.”
She was so struck by the sensation, she almost stopped at her grandparents’ house to tell them about it. “It was like an awakening inside me or something,” she said.
She chose instead to keep driving and found a place to park directly in front of the small church. Then, before she could take the keys out of the ignition, a man—a neighbor who lived across the street—frantically rapped on her car window. “Leave!” he shouted. “Leave! There’s been a shooting.”
She didn’t ask questions. She backed out, tires spinning on the gravel as she accelerated, and drove to a house near the church where the mother of a friend lived. Yes, the woman told her, there had been a shooting. No, she didn’t have details.
Sarah realized later that she had pulled up to the church building during the few minutes between the time the shooter had fled and when the police and first responders began arriving. That mystical experience she had felt while driving had occurred at about the time the shooter had opened fire on the helpless worshippers inside the building.
“My main feeling at that point was confusion and uncertainty,” she said, “but I remember feeling and hearing my pulse in my ears and body, so I know I was already going into shock. My main thought was, ‘Keep Elene safe.’ ”
With ambulance and police sirens screaming, with helicopters already circling the normally quiet little community, and with little Elene crying in her car seat in back, she then drove to the Community Building a few blocks away. Frantic family members who had begun converging on the church were being instructed to gather at the building, both to get them away from the desperate scene and to allow Texas Rangers to find them more easily if they needed help identifying victims.
The small frame building began to fill with volunteers eager to help. First responders came in, their faces grim, often with tears in their eyes. Neighbors dropped by with food. Texas Rangers, sheriff ’s deputies, and state troopers called people out for interviews. FBI agents showed up. It was crowded, chaotic. Among the gathering crowd were people like Sarah, people waiting. In midafternoon she looked into the eyes of a friend and heard the news she’d been dreading:
Eight times she heard the same unequivocal answer, the same dreaded response. Her parents. Her brother Danny. Her sister-in-law Crystal and Crystal’s unborn child. Four youngsters—Emily, Megan, Noah Grace, Greg. Three generations of her family were gone.
Sarah’s older brother, John Holcombe, Crystal’s husband, was wounded but survived, as did John’s seven-year-old stepdaughter, Evelyn. Her sister-in-law, Jennifer Holcombe, Danny’s wife and mother to seventeen-month-old Noah Grace, also survived. But the family’s loss was staggering.
“When I found out they had all been killed, I was shattered,” Sarah told us at church one Sunday morning months later. Barely tall enough to peer over the lectern, she was surrounded on the rostrum by several churchwomen who had returned from a weekend retreat. They wore purple T-shirts with the word “UNSHAKEABLE” printed in sparkly silver letters across the back.
“I was shattered into a million pieces,” she continued in a soft voice. “I was just broken. I can’t put into words how broken I was. I didn’t like feeling broken, so I began to try to put myself back together. I worked really hard to pull myself back together, but I could not put myself back together.”
Despite the lingering pain, despite the profound sadness, she did not go away. Unlike a few survivors who couldn’t bear to be in a place where they had lost so much, she did not go to another church. Or no church. “I have thought about going to a different church, but at least for right now, I need to be here,” she told me via email.
Her parents were so involved in the church, it was their extended family. She felt an obligation to stay—and a sense of comfort. “Every Sunday whenever I pull up—late as usual—to a full parking lot, it brings tears to my eyes,” she said. “Before November, I can’t remember the parking lot ever being full. My family would have been so happy how many souls have come into a relationship with Christ through our tragedy.”
I heard echoes of Sarah’s story in many other accounts of that day. All who might have been at church that morning had mixed feelings. They felt a form of survivor’s guilt, as did the actual survivors. They felt grateful to God. They felt they were spared for some divine reason, some mission that they prayed would be revealed to them.
Ted Montgomery, a church deacon and Vietnam veteran, got up and got ready that morning, but his wife, Ann, wasn’t feeling well. Sitting on the front porch drinking coffee with Ted’s sister Helen Fidler, also a church member, they decided to stay home. “Something came over me,” Ann recalled, “and we just decided not to go that morning.” Everybody sitting in the pew where the Montgomerys and their extended family usually sat was killed.
Rod Green, also a Vietnam vet, hopped on his Harley for the short ride to church that morning but decided on the spur of the moment to drop by a yard sale that had “hog badges” for sale. He pulled into the churchyard shortly after the shooting. Green, a former deputy sheriff in Montana, always carried a pistol, even at church, and he felt guilty that he wasn’t there that morning to confront the shooter. He conceded he might not have been able to stop a man shooting through walls with an AR-15.
Windy Choate, who became the church secretary a few weeks after the shooting, had been sick all week, and her husband, Stormy, was at work. The Choates—yes, Windy and Stormy—had been church members for eight years. She had turned her phone off so she could sleep and didn’t turn it back on until one p.m. Among the first of many messages was one from a friend: “I can’t even tell you; turn the news on.”
“It was probably fortunate for me that I didn’t need to be up here [at the church] and in the way,” Windy said. “I watched a lot of those kids grow up.”
The men, women, and children who did walk into their church’s little sanctuary that morning, as they had done countless times before, found themselves in a hell beyond imagining. David Colbath, an irrepressible fellow who liked to talk and to preach—regardless of whether he was in the pulpit, church members said with a smile—recalled that he taught Sunday school that morning. “And I taught on James 1, and it was so ironic,” he told me. “I taught on James 1 that God cannot be tempted, that God is incapable of doing evil. And it was a good Sunday school lesson. We talked and, like I said, it’s one of my favorite books in the Bible, and I knew the Word pretty well.
“And that Sunday morning I can remember going and sitting down, shaking people’s hands, and we sang our first song. And after the first song, we get up and go shake people’s hands and talk and meet everybody and then go back and sit down and wait for the messages coming on.”
When Colbath got back to the pew where he’d been sitting, he found that a little girl named Evelyn Hill—Sarah Slavin’s niece—had joined him. Seven years old, blonde-haired Evelyn and Colbath’s daughter were best friends. “Farida Brown had been sitting next to me,” he said, “and Evelyn decided to sit between the two of us, and I said, ‘Evelyn, what are you doing sitting here right now?’ And she says, ‘I just wanted to sit next to you.’ And that’s never happened before.”
As Colbath was sitting down, Karla Holcombe, Evelyn’s grandmother and Sarah’s mother, got up from a front pew and walked to the pulpit to read the announcements for the week—coming church events, who was sick, who had requested prayers. Colbath heard what sounded like fire- crackers at the front door of the church. Colbath, also a gun enthusiast, was shot multiple times and almost bled to death on the floor of the church. During sleepless nights in the weeks and months to come, nights interrupted by anxious bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he would fantasize about what he might have done had he been carrying a gun.
“I’ve been through the guilt that I couldn’t do anything that morning,” he told me one morning after church. “But there was nothing we could do. Now I know that God saved me for a higher purpose.”
Ben and Michelle Shields, the shooter’s in-laws—and likely targets—had stayed up late the night before, attending a stock car race where they watched their friend Kris Workman compete. They were getting ready for church the next morning, even though Ben’s back was hurting.
“I knew he was in pain,” Michelle recalled. “At the last minute, the Lord spoke to me. I heard the Lord tell me to stay home.”
Michelle’s mother, Lula White, perhaps a target, as well, was among the victims.
Months after the shooting, Michelle was still barely sleeping. As she explained to San Antonio Express-News reporter Silvia Foster-Frau, her head would hit the pillow and her mind would start racing. She would see her church family huddled under pews, terrified. She would see her son-in-law coming toward her, finger on the trigger of his AR-15. The screams of friends and family members echoed inside her head.
“I still feel responsible,” she told Foster-Frau, her voice and body shaking with grief. “I feel responsible for trying to reach out and trying to bring [her son-in-law] closer to the Lord. Because I feel like all I did was bring the devil closer to our church.”
From the book SUTHERLAND SPRINGS by Joe Holley, Copyright © 2020 by Joe Holley. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved.