EL PASO Irene walks among the mounds of flowers placed along a span of green construction fencing at the makeshift memorial for the victims of the Aug. 3 shootings at the Cielo Vista Walmart.
Weeks after the tragedy, she culls dead stems and plucks shards of broken glass from pavement filled with notes, glass candles depicting Jesus and Our Lady of Guadalupe, crosses bearing the victims’ names and flower arrangements that comprise the somber garden.
“I have to come here,” the El Paso native said, declining to provide her full name but willing to quietly share her story in a place where nearly everyone speaks in hushed tones.
Irene’s daughter had commented on Facebook that seeing the pictures of the 22 victims was like “opening a family photo album.”
“It’s true,” Irene said. “Everyone resembles someone in our family. God did make us brothers and sisters.”
And so Irene comes daily to “barely make a dent” in the debris until the El Paso heat drives her away. “They are all family,” she said.
Carlos also stops by, his first visit to the memorial since the day of the shootings, when the airport security guard waited to catch his bus connection at the Sun Metro station beside the Walmart parking lot.
“I don’t believe that anybody from El Paso would have done this,” Carlos said.
Marissa Monroy, who lives in Austin, returned to her hometown to celebrate the birthday she shares with her mother, Linda. With Marissa’s sister, Amanda Madrid, the three El Paso natives walk along the memorial, stopping to take pictures and read placards.
“This is the first thing she wanted to do when she got to town,” Linda said of her daughter.
“I can’t really put it into words. I just wanted to come and pay my respects,” Marissa said.
They walk on, the sound of heavy machinery rumbling behind the fence obscuring the view of the Walmart. The machines are not bulldozers; the company has announced that the store will not be razed but redone, with new fixtures, flooring and merchandise—a total restoration of one of the busiest Walmarts in the nation. The reconstruction will include a memorial to the victims and should be open by the holidays, the company announced Aug. 22.
The people of El Paso are likewise in need of a restoration of the heart that churches and pastors—including those from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention—are helping to shape.
By Aug. 7, four SBTC Disaster Relief chaplains, all pastors, had driven from across Texas to minister in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath. Immanuel Baptist, a two-minute walk from the Walmart, hosted a prayer vigil two days prior with more than 350 in attendance.
The evening of Aug. 22, some 50 pastors, wives and SBTC representatives gathered for a prayer rally at Immanuel and Executive Director Jim Richards delivered a message reassuring the group of the SBTC’s continued support in ministering to community.
“When people are being killed because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity or even their religion, it is nothing but evil. Human help and power fail us,” Richards said as he preached on Nahum 1:7. “It’s only God who can help us get through these evil days.”
Needs remain in the wake of the tragedy.
Juan Vazquez, pastor of Agua de Vida church, told the TEXAN that gatherings such as the prayer rally were beneficial, adding that more training in grief response would help. That opinion was echoed by Mario Martinez, pastor of El Buen Pastor church, and Sergio Lopez, pastor of La Verdad Community Church.
Lopez said that prayer is needed is not only for the community but also for authority figures, calling for “unity between all churches, Spanish and English.”
Richards confirmed that SBTC trainings in grief counseling, church safety and prayer are scheduled for El Paso this fall.
Daniel Moreno, Jezreel pastor, has already invited licensed counselors to provide emotional support to the members of his church. Moreno, a bivocational pastor who works for a federal agency, knows the counselors, all Christians, from work. Four families in Moreno’s church were directly affected by the shootings: two people worked at the Walmart and two worked nearby.
The church’s youth were especially affected, according to Jezreel youth pastor Oscar Gonazalez, who said counseling has been provided for them.
Moreno said he was scheduled to be interviewed by Spanish Christian Radio Manantial FM 91.1 to discuss counseling at the church once services were established.
“We are going to have a presence here from our staff who will minister,” Richards said.
Grief counselor training was scheduled for Sept. 28 at Iglesia Bautista Jezreel, according to SBTC prayer strategist Ted Elmore.
The church security workshop is scheduled Oct. 12 at Immanuel Baptist and led by Dallas-based Teamworks Consulting Inc. The SBTC’s Prayer Bootcamp is scheduled for Nov. 12, also at Immanuel.
Trainings will be in Spanish and English.
The SBTC is also reprinting and making available Elmore’s 20-page manual, “Incident Preparation & Recovery,” in both English and Spanish. Plans are underway to offer the resource to other state Baptist conventions, with options for customization for individual states.
To prepare the manual, Elmore drew upon his experiences as the liaison between the convention and First Baptist Sutherland Springs following the Nov. 5, 2017 shootings at that Texas church.
“This madness has got to be stopped,” Elmore said. “The gospel is the ultimate answer to violence. We must address the ‘problem of the heart,’ which is the heart of the problem.”
He advocated prayer: “We know from the book of Acts that every time the church prayed, they prayed themselves into unity and God did things no human can do.”
Elmore’s manual contains a section on prayer, but churches may also download other resources at sbtexas.com/prayer.
“We are blessed if you pray for us,” Mario Martinez told the TEXAN, his request pertinent not only for his congregation but for El Paso residents like Irene, who continue to mourn.