'This does not define us': Sutherland Springs residents share what they want world to know about their community

Community members have held a vigil for the third time in as many days

Sutherland Springs community hold a vigil for the Texas church shooting victims

Residents of Sutherland Springs and the surrounding communities have gathered for the third time in as many days to honour the victims of a mass shooting that killed 26 people in the tiny Texas town.

More than 100 people filled the stands of the La Vernia High School football field on Tuesday. Drenched in the glow of the stadium floodlights, they sang, grasped hands, and bowed their heads in prayer. Some 30 miles away, at least six members of their community remained in the hospital, with injuries ranging from serious to critical.

Sharon Todd attended the vigil with her husband, Rick, and their niece. The family lives in La Vernia, but lost someone close to them in the Sutherland Springs shooting. Most of the people in the small towns surrounding Sutherland Springs are connected to it in some way, Ms Todd noted, whether through blood, marriage or friendship.

Surveying her community on Tuesday night, she said: “We’re good, hardworking, loving people. And this [the shooting] does not define us.”

The tragedy, her husband added, “only makes us stronger.”

Three days earlier, a lone gunman carrying an assault rifle walked into the First Baptist Church and started firing. Survivors say he walked through the pews one by one, looking for people to shoot. By the end of his rampage, he had murdered approximately four per cent of the town’s population, according to authorities.

At the football field on Tuesday, a line of local preachers took the microphone to offer words of comfort to the crowd. One speaker received a particularly raucous round of applause when he declared that “the Devil messed up when he messed with Sutherland Springs”.

“Not only did he mess with Christians,” the preacher said, “he messed with Christians in Texas.”

Texas gunman's neighbours and colleagues speak after massacre

When the preachers finished, a local musician stepped up to lead a round of folk songs. Sandra Jackson, an employee of La Vernia High School, sat by herself in the stands, singing along quietly. She said she had lived in the area for 30 years, and came to the vigil for moral support – as well as personal reasons she preferred not to discuss.

“I wish this could have happened under happier circumstances,” she said of the gathering going on around her.

“But the truth of the matter is, we have each other’s backs – and tonight is proof of that,” she added.

Gary Degollado, another employee of the school, said he was a relative newcomer to the area. He grew up in a small town slightly farther away, and moved to La Vernia recently to teach an after school programme at the high school.

On Tuesday night, he recalled how welcoming the town had been to him when he arrived.

“They made me feel like part of the community right away,” he said. “They’re good people.”

He added: “You can definitely feel the love here tonight.”

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