Slaughtered Sanctuary: The Sutherland Springs Church Shooting

On November 5, 2017, a First Baptist Church service in the rural town of Sutherland Springs, Texas was horrifically interrupted by a deadly mass shooting. Twenty-six-year-old gunman Devin Patrick Kelley killed twenty-six people and injured another twenty. Kelley began shooting while crossing the street into the church, and once inside, shouted as he shot up and down the pews. When Kelley left the church, local citizen Stephen Willeford pursued Kelley with a rifle, shooting him twice. As Kelley escaped, Willeford joined passing driver Johnnie Langendorff to chase the vehicle. They found Kelley’s vehicle crashed on the road-side in Guadalupe County, and Kelley dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Kelley’s criminal history points to a troubled life that culminated in the horrendous shooting. In 2012, while stationed with the U.S. Air Force in New Mexico, Kelley was charged for assaulting his wife and abusing his stepson–whose skull he intentionally fractured. After his twelve months of confinement and demotion to the lowest rank of the Air Force, Kelley’s wife divorced him and the military discharged him for bad conduct in 2014. Kelley returned to his hometown of New Braunfels, where he was investigated for sexual assault, rape, and animal cruelty, but these investigations didn’t lead to charges. He married his second wife, Danielle Shields. Kelley purchased four firearms between 2014 and 2017, one of which he used in the deadly mass murder. On November 6, 2017, the Air Force acknowledged that Kelley’s assault charges should have prohibited him from possessing firearms. However, the U.S. Air Force stated, “Initial information indicates that Kelley’s domestic violence offense was not entered into the National Crime Information Center database by the Holloman Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations.”

Kelley’s motive for the mass shooting is unclear. At the time of the shooting, Kelley was no longer living with his wife, Danielle Shields, and was sending threatening text messages to her mother, who attended First Baptist Church. Though Shield’s mother was not present at the church during the shooting, Shield’s grandmother was present and was one of the twenty-six killed. This family dispute may be the cause of this mass murder, but Freeman Martin from the Texas Department of Public Safety, is doubtful. “There are many ways that he could have taken care of the mother-in-law without coming with 15 loaded magazines and an assault rifle to a church. I think he came here with a purpose and a mission,” he stated. Kelley attended First Baptist Church in 2014 and volunteered to teach Bible classes, but stopped shortly afterwards and began actively posting about atheism online. This change in belief could have contributed to Kelley’s motive.

While many have found in this disquieting event a message about the dangers of gun use, this event can also be considered as a perspective into our changing communities. The guns in this event served to invade and permanently damage a church, a sacred foundation of American culture and society. For thousands of years, churches have been unifying anchors of our communities. As shown by the humble community of Sutherland Springs and many others, even the smallest villages are characterized by the steepled churches which lie at the heart of them. Churches have always served as centers of community and fellowship. For many, a place of worship is a distinctive haven in a chaotic, broken world. Worship is a healing time to refocus on one’s moral and religious reality. The notion that, in the aftermath of this shooting, concern is sparked about the technicalities of gun control, while the sacred setting in which this shooting took place is overlooked, indicates that churches are losing their value to our society. These havens are disappearing and being viewed as just as mundane and unremarkable as fast-food restaurants and city streets. Appreciation for the churches which are crucial to millions of Americans doesn’t require religious conversion or agreement with all Christian philosophies. Appreciation simply requires honor and respect for the imperative nature of churches as sanctuaries of safety and integral components of cultural history and identity.