At the tiny Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, the white clapboard building still stands where it was on November 5, 2017. But since the day a gunman went into his mother-in-law’s church and killed 26 members, including an unborn baby, the building has stood as a memorial.
Inside the sanctuary, bullet holes have been patched and the walls and floors are painted bright white. Chairs mark the spots where each person was killed. A red rose is propped against each chair.
There are 26. Nine chairs for members of one family.
Jennifer Holcombe was sitting in church that morning with her husband, Marc “Danny” Holcombe and their one-year-old daughter, Noah Grace. Holcombe survived when the gunman came in. Her husband and their only child did not.
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“We went through fertility treatments to get her, so it took a lot and we knew that she was going to be very special if we got her,” said Holcombe.
“We said from the beginning that she wasn't ours, that God gave her to us,” she explained. “We only had her as long as he gave her to us, just not knowing it would be that short of a time.”
Holcombe still lives in the home she made with her husband and daughter. Noah Grace’s toys still sit on a living room shelf, Holcombe keeps them around for the nieces and nephews who come over.
She says she’s leaned into her faith over the last year, especially the belief her family is together in heaven. On Earth, Holcombe says she knows they did not suffer.
“I was there with them, I don’t have to wonder what went on with them, I don’t have to ask other people to get those answers,” said Holcombe. “I think that might make a difference.”
“I remember her telling me they're together,” said Holcombe’s sister-in-law Sarah Slavin. “She was so strong when she said it.”
Slavin was running late to church the day her brother Danny was killed, along with a sister-in-law, four more nieces and nephews and her parents: Bryan and Karla Holcombe.
Bryan Holcombe was a deacon in the church was scheduled to preach that day. Karla Holcombe was reading the announcements at the front.
“There are times when it's very tempting, where you just wish you could stay in bed that day and not have to face stuff, but that's not life,” said Slavin. “That's not living and I chose life.”
That choice was harder for Slavin’s brother, Scott Holcombe.
“I was using drugs and drinking a lot and being reckless,” said Holcombe. “I would get on my motorcycle and ride around like I didn't care. Actually, I wanted to die.”
“I remember praying to God, man this is too much,” said Holcombe. “Before long, I ended up in jail and I ended up getting sent to rehab.”
He is sober now and taking his grief and his recovery day-by-day.
“With Scott, I think about how proud my mom would be,” said Slavin. “With Scott, she’d always say because he struggled with addiction before, she would say he’s just working on his testimony.”
Slavin and Jennifer Holcombe remain active with the church, both say they’ve found their faith has deepened.
“I still cry every Sunday at church during worship,” said Slavin. “Overwhelmed tears. In a way, it’s even joy because my faith has gotten a lot stronger and there’s just a lot of feelings that come with that.”
“I can’t explain it because it’s not something that comes from me,” added Slavin. “It’s not it’s not like I just decided, I’m going to get through this by having stronger faith. It’s just how it happened, the way God revealed himself to me.”
“I’m OK and as long as I’m leaning on God, I’m going to get through this,” said Jennifer Holcombe. “I had to just completely let Him be my strength, I didn’t have it in me to do it. I had to give it all over to Him.”
Holcombe says she finds she relishes the moments of joy she’s experienced over the last year.
“I’ll be sitting in the car, even singing a song and it will just fill me and it’s not something I ever would have expected,” said Holcombe. “I think it’s because I had to just lean completely on God through all this.”
Holcombe says she doesn’t carry any anger over the shooting.
Slavin agrees the family is looking for the good that can come from their story.
“I just have this trust that good will come from it,” said Slavin. “I have seen a lot of good that has come from it and I get a lot of comfort in that.”
And on the anniversary of the shooting, the family works to make sure their loved ones aren’t defined by that day.
“We always had fun before,“ said Slavin. “There was joy and shenanigans. I just don’t want to lose that, because of the last ten minutes of everybody’s life, because of the way it happened. I can’t let that take away from their entire lives before that that we shared.”