Part of the grieving process came with the first holidays without husband, kids, and dear friends. Slavin’s mother Karla Holcombe always baked “cookie wands” for everyone, so for her birthday Slavin and Jenni Holcombe decided to try her recipe. Something went wrong and the dough stuck. Instead of cookies, Slavin and Holcombe had a cookie dough fight.
Slavin said many of the women who were killed “were the biggest instigators of all our shenanigans and fun stuff.” So she and other survivors decided to come up with new “shenanigans” so everyone would still have fun times.
At Christmas, church members held a scavenger hunt for the kids. A group of bikers, including the pastor, rode their motorcycles to deliver toys to low-income children. One biker was Stephen Willeford, the man who confronted and gave chase to the shooter. With his round belly, white hair and beard, and red Santa hat, Willeford resembled Santa Claus.
After the shooting, Willeford started attending First Baptist rather than his home church in San Antonio, 45 minutes away. He decided he wanted to be counted as one of the survivors. “I lost people I care about, too,” he said. “I’m a survivor.” Since the shooting, he has trained some church members to handle guns. He has also traveled to churches in Dallas, Columbus, San Diego, and Birmingham to educate members on security.
Before the shooting, First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs had 50 or 60 worshippers on a good Sunday. The shooter murdered 26 of them. Now, average church attendance is about 200. Some of those newcomers are community members who committed to the church to show support. Others are like Julie Rogers, who became a Christian through watching the church respond to the tragedy. She came to the church to encourage her co-worker Kris Workman, the worship leader who was paralyzed in the shooting, and found herself drawn back again and again. On Christmas Eve, she was baptized.
On Oct. 25, about 30 church members gathered in a temporary building for Bible study and supper. They ate chicken and dumplings or tomato soup and cornbread and listened to a speaker. Reminders of the shooting hang on the wall, including a picture of a Texas flag with white script: “Pray for Sutherland Springs.” Nearby hangs a painting of a small white church building with three crosses and a dove above it and the words “Unchangeable Jer 7:2” (“Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD …’”).
After the meal and Bible study, the church secretary passed around prayer request pages. The top of the page read, “Pray for the families of our victims.” The people shared requests and things they were thankful for and took turns praying for each other.
Jenni Holcombe was there, as was Stephen Willeford. But not all the survivors returned to the church, and not all who returned are at the same place in their grief. Out the window is a building project for the new church. The small white chapel the shooter attacked is now a memorial: Inside, everything is painted white. Wooden folding chairs with gold names mark where each victim died. A red rose sits on each chair. A pink rose on one chair represents Crystal Holcombe’s unborn baby.