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East Texas' presence felt when Sutherland Springs church held first service since massacre

By Becky Bell
Nov. 14, 2017 at 12:33 a.m.

Patrick Johnson of J-STAR Ministries in Longview at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs (Submitted photos)

After the worst mass shooting in Texas history, people need more than prayers, said Patrick Johnson, founder of J-Star Ministries in Longview.

"When tragedy happens, we've gotten bad about saying, 'I'm praying for you, I'm praying for you,'" he said. "People need more than prayers."

Johnson was among hundreds of mourners Sunday — he estimated from 1,500 to 2,000 people — who visited the tiny town of Sutherland Springs for its first church service since a Nov. 5 shooting that left 26 people dead, including several children and one woman who was pregnant.

He took more than prayers with him when he visited the community that's about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio.

Through the generosity of many in East Texas, Johnson had donations of stuffed animals, blankets, cards from Harleton High School and from Davy Crockett Elementary School in Marshall.

He also delivered gift cards from McDonald's and Chick-fil-A restaurants. He took donations to Floresville schools, about 10 minutes' drive from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, the site of the massacre.

Sunday's service was outside, Johnson said, but people who wanted to go into the church could go in 10 at a time. Inside, 26 chairs were set out in memory of the slain. Each group of 10 people had five minutes inside the church.

Out of respect, some people knelt and prayed. Many sobbed, Johnson said.

"It was overwhelming, to say the least. The feeling that you got once you walked inside the church was overwhelming," he said. "They are receiving love from all over the country, and they are resilient and confident they will pull through this. That is what they told me."

In the group that went into the church along with Johnson was one young man who was a drummer for the church. When he broke down, Johnson said he tried to give him encouragement.

"We prayed with him, and it was very hard for him," he said. "We laid hands on him and encouraged him and talked about how hard all of this is."

The stuffed animals Johnson donated will be distributed this week while several funerals are held in the community.

"I want to thank everyone in East Texas and lot of individuals and people to send cards and everything to make it possible," Johnson said. "It means a lot."

The gunman in the shooting, Devin Patrick Kelley, went from aisle to aisle looking for victims and shooting crying babies at point-blank range, according to witness accounts. The dead ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years old. About 20 people were wounded in the shooting.

Kelley died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was shot and chased by two men who heard the gunfire at the church.

Investigators have said the attack appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving Kelley and his mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services at the church but wasn't there the day of the shooting.

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