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Uvalde Community Worships Together on First Sunday Since School Shooting Claimed 21 Lives

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Updated: | Originally published:

Nine-year-old Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia was planning to recite a Bible verse, Deuteronomy 6:18, the Primera Iglesia Bautista’s (First Baptist Church’s) Sunday service on May 29. But plans changed after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School on May 24, killing her and 18 of her classmates and two teachers. Instead, three of her friends from Sunday school recited the verse in her honor, with a picture of Ellie projected behind them.

Much of Uvalde spent Sunday morning attending church services, together mourning the loss of 21 beloved 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. In some churches, religiously affiliated licensed counselors were brought in from other parts of Texas and as far away as Ohio to come to the aid of those experiencing grief.

The photographs of Lexi Rubio, left, and Eliahna Garcia, students at Robb Elementary school who were killed in the recent mass shooting are projected during a service at Iglesia Bautista church on May 29, 2022.David Butow—Redux

Read more: ‘It’s Too Late for Prayer.’ Uvalde’s Faith Leaders Are Called Upon to Help a Community Face the Unimaginable

In the four church services TIME attended in Uvalde Sunday morning, one common message was clear: church leaders preached forgiveness, and reassurance that deceased loved ones would be seen again.

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, left, prays with his wife Mary at the Templo Cristiano church on May 29, 2022.David Butow for TIME
Three woman listen to a sermon at St. Philip's Episcopal Church on May 29, 2022.David Butow for TIME

The large, elegant room was packed with at least 100 people, and members of the audience were in tears. But they sang and embraced one another throughout the service.

A few blocks away, at the Templo Cristiano (Christian Temple), a Tree City Church, a Spanish service began with remembrance of the victims of the shooting. “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.”

Read more: These Are the Victims of the Uvalde, Texas, School Shooting

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.”

Meanwhile, at the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, white-robed clergy prepared for the 10:30 a.m. Eucharist. Outside the stone church, members hugged each other before walking down the church aisle. Some members of the choir were in tears. “This community responds together in times like this,” says Beverly Heyen, a 15-year resident of Uvalde and member of St. Philip’s. “Our hearts go out to everyone, and everyone is connected in some way… and this church is a part of that.”

A memorial at a park in central Uvalde on May 26, 2022.David Butow—Redux

Churches and schools provide the backbone of Uvalde, Heyen says. St. Philip’s, for example, partners with other area churches for food drives and other community services. Prior to Sunday services, churches throughout the town hosted community events and opened spaces for prayer. 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. On Saturday evening, people gathered in the Town Square to pray, while Sacred Heart set up its backyard theater so people could gather, sing, pray, and remember those who were killed.

Read more:There Is an Emptiness.’ Uvalde Shooting Victim Lexi Rubio’s Great-Grandfather Remembers Her 10 Years of Life

Members of the Primera Iglesia Bautista, where Ellie was supposed to do her Bible reading, spent Saturday preparing sack lunches to give away to any person who wanted one. 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. Pastor Carlos Contreras stood in front of the congregation and led them in prayer. He told them that he begins to prepare each Sunday sermon a week in advance. 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.

Church-goers pray after services at Iglesia Bautista Church on Sunday, May 29, 2022.David Butow for TIME

Contreras 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. In the middle of a hymn, the congregation at Primera Iglesia Bautista barely took notice, focused instead on the community gathered in the simple wooden pews to remember Ellie and her classmates, joining their voices in song.

Correction, June 6

The original version of this story misstated Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia’s age. She was 9 years old, not 10.

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera/Uvalde, Texas at jasmine.aguilera@time.com