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Sante Fe Strong: How Texas Pastors Rallied with Police to Bring Healing After School Shooting

06-18-2018
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SANTA FE, Texas – Tragedy struck the tight-knit town of Santa Fe one month ago when it lost eight students and two teachers after a 17-year-old classmate, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, walked into the high school and opened fire. Another 13 people were wounded in the assault.

It's a memory that is forever seared into the minds of the students and school staff at the Santa Fe Independent School District, just outside of Houston.

The pain rippled throughout the community – first and foremost among the families and friends of the victims.

But it also touched area first responders, florists who worked frantically to supply arrangements for the funerals, and the churches whose staff counseled grief-stricken residents still recovering from the effects of a record-setting catastrophic hurricane that devastated the Houston area in 2017.

Minutes after the first 911 call, John Elliott's phone went off. On the other end was the chief of police requesting help.

Elliott isn't a first responder. Rather, he is senior pastor of Gulf Coast Foursquare Church in nearby Hitchcock.

"The chief of police said, 'Please get ready and get five other pastors ready. We have an active shooter down here,'" Elliott told CBN News.

"The reason why law enforcement would call pastors is because we work hand and glove together here, and we've been working together during Hurricane Harvey," he explained.

Elliott immediately called in reinforcements like Brad Drake, with whom he meets regularly through a network of area pastors called the Highway 6 Ministerial Alliance.

"Because of the unity we had as pastors – from different denominations, different backgrounds – we were ready in that moment," explained Drake, who pastors Dayspring Church.

Offers of help poured in near and far, including from those already familiar with the kind of trauma that was unfolding in Santa Fe.

'Santa Fe Strong' message scrolls across high school marquee -- Santa Fe, Texas

"I talked with the mayor of Parkland," said Jason Tabor, the city's recently sworn in mayor. "She contacted me that first evening and kind of told me what's going to happen [and] what to expect."

While there's a shared sense of pain among the growing list of cities that have experienced mass shootings, their responses to tragedy aren't always the same.

The deadly February Florida shooting at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sparked a wave of unprecedented activism, mass student rallies, and reignited the heated gun debate.

Santa Fe produced something entirely different – a symbol of unity in the wake of differing opinions about how to deal with gun violence and school safety.

Pastor Drake, whose congregation included 15-year-old shooting victim Angelique Ramirez, credits that outcome to the ministerial alliance working together and quickly rallying around the themes of hope and healing. Those words echoed repeatedly during the service the alliance organized for the community just days after the shooting.

"So us being able to do that at a moment's notice helped us turn the narrative so that the outside forces realized that this was a place that they weren't going to be successful," he explained.

Drake defined outside forces as out-of-town activists, protestors, and the media.

A similar call for healing and unity made a major difference in 2015 after a self-avowed white supremacist killed nine South Carolina black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

"It was churches from every denomination that were in the parks. [They] were over at Mother Emanuel, out in the park singing, worshipping, joining arm and arm – black, white, red, brown, and yellow," recalled Doug Stringer of Somebody Cares America. His organization coordinates with local churches and ministries to respond to tragedies like the one in Charleston and Santa Fe.

"So when outsiders came, it was defused because the local churches decided they were going to set the tone and the narrative," Stringer told CBN News. "I really believe that the church moves quickly into the situation as a plumb line of healing and hope in the midst of tragic and horrific situations."

That healing tone is being heard and felt around the region and beyond.

"The tremendous evil that took place has not conquered the spirit of this community. And the churches have been a part of that," explained Jeff Spielman, pastor of Arcadia Christian Church and current president of the Highway 6 Ministerial Alliance.

Prayer banner citing Psalm 55 at Santa Fe High School

As residents remember the victims and try to recover, they are choosing not to be defined by this tragedy Mayor Tabor told CBN News.

Instead, they're offering a picture of unity and Texas pride summed up in the phrase plastered across city buildings, fences, marquees, and shirts and bracelets: Santa Fe Strong.

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