A religious brother visits Uvalde, Texas, and reflects on the pain of yet another community suffering in the wake of a mass shooting.
As I sat down for dinner on a recent Tuesday, one of the other brothers in my Franciscan community told me about another tragic, senseless school shooting earlier that day in Uvalde, a small farming town about 80 miles west of San Antonio, where I had lived from 1980 to 1995. I had once visited Uvalde, and, coincidentally, I was about to travel to San Antonio to attend the high school graduation of my 18-year-old godson. The things we take for granted.
When I arrived in San Antonio, I decided to spend a day in Uvalde and see firsthand how people were coping with the pain of losing 19 small children and two adults. This tragedy emotionally bludgeoned not only the grieving families of the victims, but an entire town that could not believe that such an insane act could have happened in the midst of their seemingly safe and ordinary lives.
In Uvalde, I went to Robb Elementary School, which was still cordoned off by the police because, even after four days, they were still collecting evidence. It was chilling to see the building where a young murderer deprived 21 people of their lives.
From the school I went to a memorial that had been set up in downtown Uvalde for the victims. There, wooden crosses with the names of each student and staff member killed surrounded a fountain. As I said a prayer before that set of crosses, I felt disbelief and shock that something so heinous could happen there. But then again, this should not happen anywhere. Either we have not learned the lessons from other mass killings, or we have become too emotionally numbed because of their increasing frequency.
A public park in the small, tight-knit majority-Latino city of Uvalde, Texas, is transformed into a memorial site to conmemorate the 21 lives lost to violence when an 18-year-old gunman attacked Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022. (Octavio Duran/U.S.)
I spent time at each cross, looking at the name on each one and thinking about what kind of childhood each boy or girl had lived. Their dreams, their favorite toys, their favorite food or drink, and this final goodbye to their loved ones. The children present, there to visit the memorial, were writing messages on the crosses. They displayed the range of their emotions and let the world know that action must be taken against the sale and possession of assault weapons that are the same as those used by the military.
When I asked someone at the memorial if she knew any of the victims, she answered no. But she said that as a community member, she was committed to pay her respects to these little angels led into heaven by two of their teachers.
It seems that despite the perversity of this bloodshed, tragedy brings out the best in people. There was a restaurant owner who, in solidarity, chose to donate a full meal to anyone who stopped by. Around this makeshift memorial people were offering water, ice cream and religious articles. I saw a Christian pastor praying with people who came to place flowers, candles, rosaries, photos and messages at the memorial. As time went by that afternoon, I saw people crying and hugging each other, and looking at the crosses as if they were looking at the person they were mourning.
And It was emotional to see a group of Customs and Border Patrol officers place a wreath of white flowers by the crosses, taking time to offer prayers and a moment of silence.
I was haunted by the thought that what might have been the last thing the victims saw was the one who took their lives.
Grieving families and community members gather at the memorial site in downtown Uvalde, Texas, where crosses and gifts offer tribute to the 19 students and two teachers killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. (Octavio Duran/U.S.)
Those families, and the people who survived the massacre, are never going to be the same; their lives changed on May 24, 2022. They will need a lot of counselling, and support from the community, for a long time. Once the families have buried their loved ones, the repercussions will begin. There will be blame on the authorities for not acting properly, lawsuits, etc. — but no matter how much money is involved, the blood of these children and the two adults has no price.
As a Franciscan friar, while I reflect on what I saw that day in Uvalde, I can’t stop thinking how appropriate are the words of the Prayer of St. Francis: they invite us to be “instruments of peace.” May we see love in this world full of hatred. Faith in times of doubt. We need hope in this time of despair, and persistence and courage to enlighten our politicians who live in darkness. We must bring joy to those who are sad while mourning their loved ones.
I was fortunate to see my godson receive his high school diploma, but the thought in my mind was that 19 children from Uvalde will never have the opportunity to receive their diplomas. Instead, they have received many prayers as they walk into the heavenly kingdom.
We should pay attention to the message of Pope Francis as he remembered the victims from Uvalde, “I am praying for the children and adults who were killed, and for their families. It is time to say enough to the indiscriminate trafficking of arms.”
Like all of us, the pope prays that a similar tragedy never happens again. May all of those who have lost their lives due to violence rest in peace.
Featured image: Bowed with grief, a man mourns at the memorial cross of 10-year-old Maite Rodriguez killed in Uvalde, Texas. A fourth-grader, Rodriguez dreamt of becoming a marine biologist. (Octavio Duran/U.S.)
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Scenes from a memorial site in downtown Uvalde, Texas, show grieving family and community members leaving messages, flowers and other offerings to honor the 21 people, including 19 students and two teachers, killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022. (Octavio Duran/U.S.)