May 27, 2022 4:59 PM EDT

You need to go to the hospital now.

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 been out getting his oil changed, taking care of the kind of mundane elements of life that, until that moment, felt essential. 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. But as Swimmer arrived at home, the entire city seemed to be roaring with the sound of sirens, a din that would continue in Uvalde for hours. His wife turned on the news.

“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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When he told officials there that he was a pastor in the community, he was sent upstairs to a waiting area. Entering the room, another shock followed, the soft-spoken pastor explains, his voice breaking. 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. Most in the huddle were crying. Some were shaking. Swimmer tried to pray as loudly as he could.

But what does one pray for in that moment?

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

As he made his way around the room, he asked families if he could pray for them. Many welcomed it. Others wanted nothing of the kind.

“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 of people went to bed baffled Tuesday night, astounded and deeply troubled. Why had 19 children been slaughtered in their classrooms? How would their mothers and fathers carry on? 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.

In Uvalde County, which includes the city of Uvalde, about 85% of people identified themselves as practicing some denomination of Christianity, according to a Public Religion Research Institute 2020 Census of American Religion, and the city is home to at least one church for every 750 residents. (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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Research suggests that, in the wake of the tragedy experienced by the community this week, those religious communities may serve an important role. Among all those who can survive a period of intense stress such as the mass shooting in Uvalde, a time will eventually come during which their brains become more neuroplastic, changing the way information is processed so that the person can survive the most horrible things imaginable, says Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a physician and Duke University professor whose scholarly work focuses on the health benefits of faith, particularly in moments of crisis. 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. But he and a pair of Harvard researchers, Dr. John Peteet and Tyler VanderWeele, are set to soon publish, in the Third Edition of the Handbook of Religion and Health, research and data showing the protective effects that faith seems to create in the bodies of most people who endure a crisis. While there are certainly some situations in which religion creates more problems than it solves, he says, those situations are in the minority.

“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. As Gruben made his way back to Uvalde, a drive of about an hour and a half, what looked to him like at least a hundred law-enforcement vehicles flew by him, lights and sirens blaring. “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.”

After receiving a call from Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin while on his way home, Gruben picked up another pastor and dropped his wife at home before heading to a local funeral parlor. Upon his arrival, McLaughlin asked him to pray with him right there, right then, in the middle of the funeral home that had been transformed into a chaotic command center. This was a moment, Gruben says, for which no one could be fully prepared.

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. She also knows how important the voice of faith can be in a moment like this.

“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.”

Meanwhile, as the minutes turned to hours at Uvalde Memorial, Doug Swimmer listened to people trying to find words while living through a waking nightmare. He saw hospital staff bring a child into the waiting room who had survived with minor injuries. The child, Swimmer said, looked stunned as relatives grabbed and kissed him. Other families weren’t so fortunate. Swimmer is haunted by the screams. All told, Uvalde Memorial Hospital treated 15 people injured by the same gunman on Tuesday, 11 children and four adults. Seven were transferred for more intensive treatment to San Antonio hospitals. Eight were discharged. Two children, one boy and one girl, were dead on 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. He helped to coordinate a city-wide prayer service at the Uvalde County Fairplex that he estimates hosted as many as 1,000 people on Tuesday night, as other pastors, who in some cases lost multiple parishioners, needed to sit with mothers and fathers who were probably going to have to be reminded to eat and, soon, to find the strength to bury their children.

That instinct to simply be with people is in accord with expert perspectives on how faith can best help individuals through trauma.

“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. Let them vent. They will naturally process the event but it will take time. And they can only do that in a safe environment where they feel cared for, loved, listened to, acknowledged. 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 keeps thinking of the woman at the hospital who said it was too late to pray, and wondering what happened to her child.

The people here, he says, are struggling just to remember to breathe. They are facing a different kind of life, one without their sons and daughters, their nieces and nephews, their siblings. There are people in Uvalde who will have to write obituaries for children who only lived long enough to dream.

By daybreak Thursday morning, someone had pushed 21 white crosses into the ground outside Robb Elementary. And some of the people Swimmer has sat with or prayed with are asking why.

“You can’t answer the why. What are you going to tell them? You can’t,” he says. “And on this side of eternity we may never know the why.”

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