On November 5, 2017, Joe Holley was busily signing his work at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, and had heard someone mention something about a shooting somewhere near San Antonio. As he drove home toward Houston, the CNN radio report began trickling out more details: A massacre with multiple deaths and casualties. Inside a church during Sunday Service. In Sutherland Springs, Texas.
On a whim – and with a reporter’s instinct – Holley turned his car around and started off on I-35 toward this town he’d never heard of before. And by the time he reached it, he was sucked right in the middle of a maelstrom of sadness, candlelight vigils, an appearance by the Governor of Texas, an—by bizarre coincidence—his own newspaper reporter son on the job.
“I’ve traveled all over the state, and pride myself in knowing every small town in Texas. When I was at the Washington Post, my buddies would try to stump me and name one that I didn’t know,” Holley says. “But Sutherland Springs befuddled me. As a reporter, I felt if I didn’t go, I would miss an opportunity to learn and convey something about this horror that this country faces periodically.”
What happened that day was 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, whose life was a litany of anger, alcohol and drug abuse, a brief military career pockmarked with warnings and infractions, and who was a convicted domestic abuser, entered the First Baptist Church that his wife’s family regularly attended.
Locked and loaded, he instantly began blazing away with his semi-automatic weapon, killing indiscriminately. The youngest victim was an unborn child, and the oldest a 77-year-old grandfather. Many victims were shot point blank in the head.
When the carnage was over, 26 people lay dead and 20 more were wounded. After two men gave chase – one hitting Kelley twice with his own gun – the killer shot himself in his car while screams were still pouring from the pews. As of today, it is the fifth deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Next month, Hachette Books will publish Holley’s likely definitive take on the incident, the town, and the people in Sutherland Springs: God, Guns, and Hope in a Texas Town. Holley is arguably Central Casting Qualified to tell this story. As the “Native Texan” columnist for the Houston Chronicle, he regularly profiles small Texas towns, their history, and the people who live there. He’s authored six books largely on Texas subjects and themes. And he was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his editorials on gun control and Texas gun culture.
But for this story, Holley knew immediately that he couldn’t tell the tale with “parachute journalism.” That’s where reporters descend upon the scene of a tragedy, stick their notebooks and recorders in the faces of the grieving and the victims, and then disappear just as quickly to file their stories.
Instead, Holley began just showing up in Sutherland Springs long after the crime tape had been taken down and the sanctuary that hosted the massacre was cleaned spotless.
He became a familiar sight in restaurants, gas stations, and stores. He also attended scores of sermons, informal gatherings, pot luck suppers, and Bible studies with the parishioners of First Baptist.
“I had to stick around, because I couldn’t understand the story or gain the trust of the people if I didn’t just hang out,” Holley says. “The first month, I didn’t even take any notes or ask intrusive questions, but would just introduce himself. And people knew I was a journalist.”
Holley felt he had broken through and gained the trust of the congregation when, during a discussion about the “lamestream media” and the unofficial cooperation blacklist that included People magazine, Telemundo, and a San Antonio TV station, First Baptist Pastor Frank Pomeroy looked Holley square in the eye and exclaimed “Joe, it’s nothing personal!” But by that time, Holley had been pulling out his notepad, and people began to open up to him as he built the book’s narrative.
Of all the real-life characters in this tale, none loom larger than Pomeroy. He is an unlikely head of a church who looks more like a hardened biker - and actually was, riding with the Bandidos earlier in his life while living in Houston and Pasadena. With his shaved head, handlebar Doobie Brothers mustache, tattoos, and straight talk, he was nonetheless beloved by his flock.
Ironically, Pastor Frank was not preaching at the pulpit on that fateful Sunday. He was away that weekend taking a training course to earn certification from the National Rifle Association to teach gun safety to kids at Baptist camp. In fact, Pomeroy and several parishioners usually wore guns on their hips during services. Holley argues that Pastor Frank would have likely been Kelley’s first victim, standing in such a prominent place. Adding to the tragedy was that Frank and wife Sherri’s teenaged daughter, Anabelle, was one of the victims.
And therein lies the most surprising thing that Holley discovered in his writing the book. That as much investment as Sutherland Springs had in God and guns before the tragedy, it only increased afterwards. Holley notes that a North Carolina Presbyterian minister even coined a term for religiously fervent passion for firearms: Gundamentalism.
“I just assumed it would shake their faith and they would be angry or enraged at the shooter or God himself. That’s what happened [a lot] during the Holocaust where people lost their faith. But that wasn’t the case here. And I didn’t believe them at first when they told me,” Holley says.
He puts it even more succinctly in the book about how the community dug into themselves and their beliefs: “In a difficult and unpredictable world, their small, tightly knit congregation provide solace, mutual respect, and social solidarity,” Holley writes. “As I listened to sermons and lessons week after week, I realized that the church offered clarity in a muddled and morally chaotic world, direction in the ongoing quest to avoid evil and wrongdoing – in the workplace, at home, in relationships.”
But no person he met affected him more than Sarah Holcombe Slavin, who lost an unfathomable nine family members on that day. She perhaps only avoided their fate only because that day she and her 2-year-old daughter were running late for the service. Talk about the well-worn cliché “there but for the Grace of God go I….”
“She put me off for a long time. But once she talked, she was very frank in that she had a lot of hard questions about what happened,” Holley says. “But she decided she had to believe. A lot of them said something similar. They couldn't imagine going on without their faith.”
In addition to completely detailing the shooting and its aftermath, the book touches on the geography and history of Sutherland Springs, Texas Baptists, gun culture and the politics around it, and even science – like what exactly the impact of a high energy bullet does to the human body. There’s also background on lives of the shooter, his victims, and the survivors.
Though he’s a former editorial writer, Holley only lets his personal feeling about gun laws – and the politicians who either enact or try to block them – really known late in the narrative.
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He questions why prior to the shootings, Governor Greg Abbott would write on Twitter he was “embarrassed” that Texas had fallen to No. 2 in the nation in new gun sales to Florida, exhorting his fellow Texans to “pick up the pace.”
And when Holley lists his Dishonor Roll of Texas-based gun-related massacres over the years: The UT Tower, the Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Santa Fe High School, the El Paso Wal-Mart, and Midland-Odessa car rampage, he’s got some thoughts about the state’s role in it all.
“I think Texas is more susceptible to [mass shootings], and I can’t really explain why other than our sort of conservative politics that grow out of a sense of individual and pioneering [mindset of] ‘We can make it on our own.’ That translates to gun ownership and government staying out of our lives,” he sums up. Though he remains hopeful the current status quo won’t always be the case, even as the Texas state legislature in 2019 passed laws to make it easier to carry firearms into public places—including churches.
“I do take sides in the book, even though I’m a journalist. It felt natural and normal to me. But today, gun safety and gun control groups gave me some hope that Texas is changing as it becomes more urban. I think we’ll be more sensible about guns. Someday.”