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Chaplains reflect on Sutherland Springs tragedy

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (BP) — Trained in critical incident stress management, Debby Tiller Nichols heard about the church shooting in Sutherland Springs and knew she had to go.

Nichols, of Texarkana, was packing her house to move when 27 people were killed at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in November. But she and four other Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) chaplains would minister to the Sutherland Springs community alongside a half-dozen Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) chaplains from Oklahoma.

“I knew there [also] would be needs among the police officers, paramedics and all the first responders,” Nichols told the TEXAN. “I knew I needed to be there.”

Months later, Nichols is among those still processing the tragedy and its aftermath.

“It seems like much longer. On the other hand, it seems like last week,” she said.

Nichols and chaplain Linda Mitter of Rockwall ministered to first responders and civilians during the week they served in Sutherland Springs. They huddled in prayer with state troopers at the cordoned-off crime scene in front of the church and spoke to and prayed with community members.

“We shared and prayed with the troopers,” said Mitter, explaining that the officers had lost one of their own only the day before when Dallas police trooper Thomas Nipper was killed during a traffic stop.

Nichols remembered a conversation with a sergeant from the Dallas Police Department. Some of the sergeant’s men had died in the 2016 Dallas police shootings.

“My people were killed,” the Dallas officer told Nichols.

Nichols noted, “It was very emotional for her, with her situation.”

“Most of what we did is listen to their stories and pray for them,” Nichols said. “That’s what we do. We listen and pray.”

Gordon Knight, SBTC director of chaplains, said chaplains “try to get people to talk so they can tell their story so they can start the healing process. When they open up to us, we invite them to pray.”

Knight said disaster relief chaplains made hundreds of spiritual contacts in Sutherland Springs.

“Mostly we walked through the community,” Mitter said. “We’d go to the community center and visit with anybody.”

Anybody included the clerk in the convenience store next to the church who had been in the store when the shots sounded.

“They heard the gunshots and knew it was not good,” Nichols said. “The person [Johnnie Langendorff] who drove the truck to pursue the shooter was her last customer that morning.”

Mitter acknowledged she had served as a chaplain before, but it was “nothing that dealt with this magnitude of death.” She described the experience as “overwhelming” and “tough,” her voice cracking as she praised the community and local pastors — including Paul Buford of River Oaks Baptist Church — who showed love, support and peace in the midst of tragedy.

Sutherland Springs was a “different kind of disaster, unimaginable,” Henry Van de Putte, executive director of the San Antonio Red Cross, told the TEXAN. Van de Putte praised Southern Baptist chaplains.

“It is an inspiration to me to walk in and see the sea of yellow shirts and know [things] are taken care of spiritually,” Van de Putte said.

Sometimes spiritual connections were made using stuffed animals.

Before the community-wide prayer service at a local football field, SBDR chaplains distributed wristbands, 300 plush animals and toys, and 200 Bibles donated by LifeWay Christian Resources to the crowd entering the gates.

“Thank you,” 10-year-old Sammy Rodriguez exclaimed as Oklahoma DR chaplain Dave Karr handed him a children’s Bible.

The toys and Bibles were for “anyone who wants them, to help them feel at ease” said SBTC chaplain Aaron Treanor, pastor of San Antonio’s Brookhill Baptist Church.

Following the prayer event, which included Vice President Mike Pence and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, chaplains offered counseling in the adjacent school gym to any who needed to talk, reporting that two people prayed to receive Christ that night.

Nichols summed up her Sutherland Springs experience by applauding the community’s resilience.

“What I went there for was to provide some kind of comfort to the people affected,” she said. “What I took away from there was comfort from the people affected. They blessed my socks off.”