Congregations in Texas gathered on Sunday for their first services since a gunman blasted his way into a high school and killed 10 people, with one pastor lamenting the grief “that none of us can comprehend”.
Just two days after the deaths of eight students and two substitute teachers, graduating seniors also marked the end of the school year with a baccalaureate service that acknowledged the pain experienced in Santa Fe, a town of 13,000, while Muslim mourners remembered the life of a slain exchange student from Pakistan.
“They will never be forgotten in this community, these young people, children just going to school,” said Brad Drake, pastor of the Dayspring Church, where a service was held that included memories of a student victim who was a congregant there.
“We have families today that are grieving a grief that none of us can comprehend.”
The pastor read the names of the dead, including Angelique Ramirez who attended Dayspring and was a member of the church’s youth ministry.
“She was a sweet young lady, had a style all of her own,” he recalled. “She almost always had a new hairstyle.”
In a nearby church kitchen, parishioners prepared plates of barbecue to be sold after the service, with all proceeds going to victims’ families.
At Arcadia First Baptist Church, Texas Governor Greg Abbott hugged parishioners as they arrived. Among them was Monica Bracknell, an 18-year-old senior who survived the shooting. She stopped to tell the governor that the attack should not be turned into a political battle over gun control.
Surrounded by television cameras, photographers and reporters, she told Abbott guns were not to blame.
“People are making this into a political issue,” she said. “This is not a political issue. It’s not a gun-law issue.”
Arcadia First Baptist also hosted the baccalaureate service on Sunday evening, which was moved from the school auditorium in the wake of the shooting. Speaker and Santa Fe graduate Aaron Chenoweth gave a short testimony about the trials and tribulations the graduating class had faced.
Meanwhile, hundreds of members of Houston’s Muslim community attended a service for Sabika Sheikh, a 17-year-old exchange student from Pakistan who talked about one day becoming a diplomat.
Her host mother, Joleen Cogburn, recalled asking the teenager why she came to study in the US. She said she wanted to learn American culture and to share Pakistani culture with Americans.
“And I want us to come together and unite,” she told Ms Cogburn. “I don’t know if they know us the way they should.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the youngster would continue to be a diplomat “because even in her death, she is pulling the relationships between Pakistan and the United States, specifically the Houston area, even closer”. Her body was to be returned to Karachi.
The suspect, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, also 17, has been jailed on capital murder charges.
In their first statement since the massacre, Pagourtzis’ family said on Saturday that the bloodshed “seems incompatible with the boy we love.”
“We are as shocked and confused as anyone else by these events,” said the statement, which offered prayers and condolences to the victims.
Relatives said they remained “mostly in the dark about the specifics” of the attack and shared “the public’s hunger for answers”.