“They bear living witness to their faith—in God, the Giver of life, and in guns, precision instruments of death.”


Joe Holley

Sutherland Springs: God, Guns, and Hope in a Texas Town

Hachette Books

Hardcover (also available as an e-book, audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-0-3164-5115-4, 304 pgs., $28

March 17, 2020


You may cry while reading this important and absorbing new book. You also may draw inspiration and courage from the reactions, resilience, and faith of those who survived “the worst mass shooting in a place of worship in American history.”


On November 5, 2017, a young man dressed in black military gear and armed with a semi-automatic rifle and two handguns opened fire at a Baptist church in the unincorporated community of Sutherland Springs, about twenty-one miles east of San Antonio. Twenty-six people were killed, and another twenty were wounded. The gunman then fled and took his own life when confronted by police and armed civilians.


No matter how you view Texas’s stance on Second Amendment rights, the state’s pervasive “gun culture,” or the availability of effective mental health care, this compassionate, well-researched work by veteran Texas journalist and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Joe Holley raises vital questions.


“In Sutherland Springs,” Holley writes, “faith in guns had collided with faith in God. Defenseless Christians, many of them ardent gun owners themselves, had become collateral damage in a holy war.”


The issues addressed by Holley, who now lives in Austin, include easy access to guns, where guns can or cannot be carried, and how troubled individuals are dealt with or too often not dealt with effectively in our society. Before the Sutherland Springs shooting, several agencies, including law enforcement and military, had tried to help a young man who had ongoing emotional, mental, and marital problems. But, as the author points out, “the Air Force . . . failed to report his domestic violence conviction to federal law enforcement.” Consequently, no warning flags were raised when he made multiple gun purchases.  


Equally important for this book, Holley made repeated trips to Sutherland Springs and spent more than a year getting to know survivors of its mass homicide, members of their families, friends, first responders, and others. These included relatives and friends of the gunman, as well as the church’s pastor who, afterward, began wearing “a pistol on his hip” during Sunday services.


“I suspected that Sutherland Springs had something to tell us all about the epidemic of mass shootings in this country and the culture of fear those shootings engender,” Holley explains. He wondered if the tragedy “would reveal something about this nation’s trust in guns, about the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity, and about everyday life in twenty-first-century rural America at a time when urban and rural, red and blue, old and young seem irrevocably estranged. Sutherland Springs could have been any one of dozens of American communities that have suffered through a mass shooting.”


Sutherland Springs has important links to nineteenth-century Texas history and once was a bustling destination for wealthy tourists hoping the locale’s mineral springs could improve their health. Before the mass shooting, however, it had dwindled into obscurity. Indeed, despite decades of writing articles about Texas, Holley himself “had never written about Sutherland Springs.”


Once there in the aftermath, Holley found “living exemplars of courage, grace, and resilience.” But he also found that the slaughter had not changed many of their views. “They bear living witness to their faith—in God, the Giver of life, and in guns, precision instruments of death. Two faiths irreconcilable, it seems to me.”


Joe Holley, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle and a retired editorial writer, was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series of editorials on gun control and the Texas gun culture. A former editor of the Texas Observer and a staff writer for the Washington Post, he's the author of six books, including Hometown Texas, a collection of his weekly "Native Texan" columns, and Hurricane Season: The Unforgettable Story of the Houston Astros and the Resilience of a City. A native Texan himself, he and his wife Laura live in Austin.