In a Texas town overwhelmed with grief, Pence delivers a message of support and faith

When Codee Baker, a 17-year-old cheerleader, showed up at the Floresville High School football stadium Wednesday evening, she was not spinning or tumbling or cheering.

She was thinking of the people she had lost: Karla Holcombe, a family friend who shared a birthday with her mother and used to watch her when she was little. Dennis and Sara Johnson, her elderly next-door neighbors. Haley Krueger, a shy 16-year-old sophomore she passed daily in her school hallways.

Texas mass shooting: Portraits of the fallen »

“I came here to honor the ones I lost,” Baker said as she entered the stadium with a long line of people clutching Bibles. “It’s just unbelievable that they’re gone.”

Clasping hands and bowing their heads in prayer, thousands of residents of small towns across south-central Texas packed the stadium Wednesday night to honor the 26 people who died Sunday when a gunman burst into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, spraying bullets at the congregation.

One of them was Vice President Mike Pence, who attended with his wife and U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, along with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and two members of Congress from Texas.

“Words fail when saints and heroes fall,” Pence said. “We mourn with those who mourn and we grieve with those who grieve, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope. Our faith gives us hope. Heroes give us hope.”

The crowd stood and cheered as a cluster of churchgoers and bystanders who survived the massacre walked onto the football field. Among them was Stephen Willeford, the local plumber who grabbed a rifle and chased the gunman as he exited the church, and Johnnie Langendorff, who joined Willeford in a high-speed chase.

“Thank God there was a neighbor that helped save lives on the tragic day,” Abbott told the crowd to loud cheers. “We will not be overcome with evil. Together we will overcome evil with good.”

Many people who assembled in this small town 13 miles south of the scene of the massacre had a connection to the victims or those left behind. Some were connected through church or community bake sales. Others were classmates or taught children who had lost loved ones.

As Makayla Pew, 7, clambered across the bleachers, her parents, Jeff and Suzanne Pew, talked about their daughter’s classmate, Emily Garcia, who died at University Hospital in San Antonio.

Just a few days before the shooting, when the Pews went with others from the school on a field trip to the San Antonio aquarium, Emily’s mother, Joann Lookingbill Ward, had been the first person there to talk to them. Smiling, she had told them they could get a better deal on Groupon than from the cashiers.

Ward and two of her children died at the church.

“She was a good person,” Suzanne said.

“There’s a girl in my daughter’s class and she’ll never come back,” Jeff Pew said, shaking his head as he looked into the distance. “There’s just a vacant seat.”

Robin Stine, 61, was a longtime neighbor of the Holcombe family, which lost eight members in the shootings. She remembered when a local mother of a special-needs child couldn’t afford a new wheelchair. Bryan Holcombe, an associate pastor at the church, repaired her wheelchair free of charge.

“They were wonderful pillars of the community,” she said, eyes misting. “That man took out three generations of that a family of loving Christian people.”

Trusting in the Lord, and drawing strength from community, were recurring themes of the vigil.

“If the attacker’s desire was to silence their testimony of faith, he failed,” Pence said. “The witness of faith in that small church and that small town now echoes across the world.”

The crowd swayed as a singer with a guitar played “Good Good Father.”

Oh, and I've seen many searching for answers far and wide,” men and women on the bleachers crooned. “But I know we're all searching for answers only you provide. 'Cause you know just what we need before we say a word.”

Across this rural area of rolling hills dotted with cow pastures and fields of hay bales, the community has rallied around the families who lost loved ones, offering prayers and hugs, dropping off plates of hot food, and chipping in to feed their horses, dogs, cats and goats.

One businessman from a town 80 miles away has offered to make custom caskets free of charge for each of the victims.

Still, some in the crowd hoped for another kind of action. John Nieto, 71, a veteran and retired teacher who had traveled to the vigil from San Antonio, said he hoped the community — and the country as a whole — could move beyond prayer and take action by passing new gun laws.

“I feel like I’m in a war zone,” he said, rattling off other recent massacres, from Orlando, Fla., to Las Vegas. “There’s too many guns. So many people died, and yet we’re not upset enough to change the laws. It’s madness.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

8:50 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details of the vigil.

This story was originally published at 8:05 p.m.

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