If, somehow, a story about deadly church shootings can be heartwarming, this is the one

I stopped by the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield, Texas, in 2004.

At the time, I covered religion and politics for The Associated Press in Dallas. Ahead of Texas' presidential primary that year, I noticed that Morris County — where Daingerfield is located — was one of the few places in George W. Bush's home state where the vote had been close in the 2000 general election.

So I headed to the steel-mill town, 140 miles east of Dallas, to talk to voters.

I found one of those voters at the Baptist church:

For Martha Martin, 62, secretary-treasurer at the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield, Bush’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage makes him the choice.
“I think he will go down in history as one of our great presidents,” Martin said.
She said she prays Bush will win re-election, “because I think he’s a moral, upstanding person, and I think he seeks the Lord in what he does.”

What I didn't realize — because I was so young when it happened — was that the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield had been the site of a mass shooting that made national headlines in 1980.

Why do I bring this up now — 37 years later?

Because the New York Times has an excellent story on the somber common experience that now ties together the Daingerfield congregation and the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people died Nov. 5.

The Times' powerful lede:

DAINGERFIELD, Tex. — James Long Jr. traced his hand on the vestibule wall inside the old yellow brick church here. He was trying to find the bullet marks.
A gunman had burst into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning in June 1980as the congregation was singing a hymn. He shouted “This is war!” and opened fire, killing three men, one woman and a 7-year-old girl.
Mr. Long, 63, had been sitting in a pew with his parents when he heard a commotion behind him. He knelt down by one of the dying, Kenneth A. Truitt, his best friend’s father. “He just looked at me and said, ‘It hurts, Junior,’” Mr. Long said. “I took my jacket off and put it under his head.”
The First Baptist Church in Daingerfield has taken on a new role in recent days, becoming a sister congregation to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. The two rural churches are separated by 400 miles yet bound by eerily similar attacks 37 years apart that have tested and defined them both.

The Times' sensitive account reflects both the lingering trauma of the Daingerfield shooting and the heartwarming resiliency of the church members who — to the extent possible — overcame it:

Worshipers, many of whom either survived the shooting or are relatives of those wounded or killed, still gather every Sunday, face the pulpit, put their backs to the front doors and sing gospel hymns, as they did 37 years ago. They no longer worship in the yellow brick building. A new red brick sanctuary was built behind the old one in 1986. The old sanctuary was turned into a fellowship hall.
Just outside the front steps stands a simple black monument with the names of the five victims inscribed in the stone: Gene Gandy, 50; Thelma Richardson, 78; Gina Linam, 7; Mr. Truitt, 49; and James Y. McDaniel, 53, the other man who died after rushing the gunman.
Those who survived the attack get tears in their eyes when they talk about Mr. Truitt and Mr. McDaniel, a railroad worker and local baseball player everyone called Red because of his hair. They say they owe their lives to Mr. Truitt, Mr. McDaniel and Christopher Hall, the third man who tackled the gunman, and that the shooting in Daingerfield could have been far deadlier than the one in Sutherland Springs were it not for their actions.

More incredible detail:

The congregation was in the middle of “More About Jesus” when Mr. King started shooting. Mr. Hall jumped on Mr. King’s back. Then Mr. McDaniel and Mr. Truitt came down the center aisle.
“I think now in 2017 it would register on me clearly what was happening,” said Steve Cowan, who was sitting in church and is now the local district attorney. “But in 1980 it was a different time. It was so unexpected to be in a small church on Sunday morning, singing a hymn with the people that you’ve grown up with in a town of 3,000 and see someone dressed up basically as a combat soldier and enter with assault rifles.”
Earlier that morning, Mr. McDaniel had been baling hay when he told his helpers he had to leave. “He said, ‘I missed church last Sunday. I’m going this Sunday,’” said Kathy Tittle, 65, Mr. McDaniel’s daughter. “So he went home and changed clothes and they went to church.” Her father was a tall, athletic country boy, who raised cattle and enjoyed hunting for frogs with a spear, a Southern pastime known as frog gigging. Ms. Tittle’s mother, Laverne McDaniel, had been sitting next to her husband when she was shot three times.

I'll resist the urge to copy and paste more big chunks of text and urge you to take the time to read the whole story. 

As you'll discover, the kicker quote at the end even includes a major dose of — dare I say it? — religion.

 

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