First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs is more than a church for many residents: It’s a place many marked life’s major events. That was the case for Lagena Garcia, who lives just a block away from the church.
Garcia resides in a log cabin with a tin roof and lush green yard with her husband and three children. If you walk to the street, you can see First Baptist still cordoned off with police tape. Garcia spent much of her life in the Church. She was baptized there.
“My parents they got married there; my grandparents had their 50th anniversary — they did the big celebration and renewed their vows there,” she said. “... I had my baby shower there.”
She and her family have a tradition of taking photos in the church doors.
“Yeah. These are actually pictures that I just recently found,” she said.
While holding her daughter in one arm, she thumbs through few of the photographs. There's one of her grandpa holding her son's hand, while walking away from the church. She holds up another from several years ago. She’s pregnant standing with her grandparents, mother and other family members.
“It was mother’s day; it was always a tradition that they would hand out roses to all the mothers. And this church is where my grandparents went when they moved out here like 70 years ago. So my mother grew up in this church,” she said with a smile.
First Baptist is near the center of this small community.
“Everybody is religious out here; we all believe in God,” she said. “Iit's like God's country out here so I guess it's the best way to put it.”
First Baptist has even served as a place of refuge when South Texas experienced extreme flooding almost two decades ago.
“When it flooded back in 1998, everybody met at that church and that was like the headquarters of emergency response for two weeks,” she said. “I lived in that church during the flood of ‘98. You know we slept on tables in the fellowship hall.”
Garcia and her family stopped attending First Baptist in 2006, opting for a different church in La Vernia.
“My entire life up until that point I went to that church every Sunday every Wednesday night," she said.
When the shooting happened, she thought a nail gun was being fired.
“And it went on for probably like a solid minute and then it got quieter but it you could still hear that ‘rat-tat-tat-tat.’ And it was later on when it came out I realized that it was him inside the church at that time,” she said.
She and her three kids hid in the bathroom with two handguns for defense. When the shooting stopped, she went to the community center just a few hundred feet away from the church where people were gathering.
“I actually saw a friend of mine. He used to be the youth minister when whenever I was going there. … And so I immediately ran over there and I was like, ‘Were your parents in the church?’ And he said no they weren't,” she said. “It was just kind of a God thing that they were in there that day. And I immediately hugged him and I was like, ‘Oh, thank God that they weren’t.’ ”
The shooting has put Sutherland Springs on a map. But Garcia doesn’t want her small town to be remembered for that.
“I do not want this to turn into something that, you know, is going to completely scar this community for, you know, for the rest of history,” she said. “... I don't want it to go down like that.”
In the days ahead, Sutherland Springs residents will meet for church service as they always do. Except this Sunday will be more than sermons and songs, there will be mourning for lost family and friends, and support for a community as it heals a deep scar.