EL PASO, Texas (BP) - Four veteran Disaster Relief chaplains from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention packed quickly and drove from different regions of the state to El Paso to minister to victims, families and the community following the Aug. 3 shootings at the Cielo Vista Walmart. The four men, all pastors, arrived Aug. 7. Each one had experience helping others deal with tragedy and grief.
Gordon Knight of Bryan, SBTC director of chaplains and pastor at Christ's Way Baptist Church, responded to deadly shootings at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in 2017 and Santa Fe High School in 2018. "There's nothing that we can do that will help except extend a listening ear and a sympathetic heart and empathy," Knight told KBTX-TV in Bryan-College Station in an Aug. 6 televised interview while traveling to El Paso. "Ours is a ministry of presence," he told the station. "Having people tell their stories can be very therapeutic and very healing."
Accompanying Knight were chaplains Dennis Parish of Conroe's The Church at 242, Terry Bunch of East Side Baptist Church, Haskell, and Mike Flanagan from First Baptist Church, Whitesboro. "We'll just ask them to tell us their story, where they were, what they felt, what emotions they had. And to be able to encourage them, share some Scripture with them and be able to pray for them," Flanagan said in an interview with Texoma’s KXII-TV.
The men were busy after arriving in the Sun City, dividing into two teams to visit the Cielo Vista Mall, local churches and area hospitals.
Bunch and Flanagan, who is fluent in Spanish, met and prayed with the family of girls' soccer coach Guillermo (Memo) Garcia at Del Sol Medical Center. Garcia remained in intensive care while his wife Jessica, also a victim, was released from the hospital and joined the family waiting at Del Sol. The Garcias were helping at a sports fundraising booth at the Walmart entrance when the gunman struck, shooting Jessica three times in the leg and Memo twice in the back and once in the leg.
"She was shot outside, tied off her leg with some kind of tourniquet, ran inside the Walmart and found her [wounded] husband," Flanagan said. Jessica told the chaplains she said to Memo, "I've got to find the children." "Go find them," Garcia replied. Flanagan said that others from the soccer team had located the kids and kept them safe, and that family members were caring for the children now.
The chaplains had less success with visiting victims at El Paso’s University Medical Center, where families and staff, exhausted from media attention and presidential entourages, were requesting privacy. In the meantime, as they walked corridors at various medical centers, nurses spied the large "chaplain" designation on their yellow SBTC disaster relief shirts and asked them to talk to other patients and their families.
Bunch also received a message from a disaster relief colleague, asking him to check on her daughter's friend Marissa, the manager of a flooring store near the Walmart. "When Marissa saw our yellow shirts, she knew who we were," Flanagan said. She asked the chaplains to talk with her staff. "We had a great 15-minute conversation and prayed with six people, mostly millennials," he added.
The chaplains also attended a prayer vigil at the invitation of college students they met at the Cielo Vista Mall's food court earlier that day. The pastors planned to return to the memorial that night with 60 stuffed animals with Gospel tracts attached to help open conversations and provide comfort. In addition to visiting churches, the chaplains were planning to be a visible presence at the start of school Monday at Immanuel Baptist Church's Immanuel Christian School, near the Walmart.