SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – United by tragedy, survivors of two recent Texas mass shootings came together Saturday to share in their grief and to continue the healing process.
The newly rebuilt First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs played host to survivors of the November 2017 shooting and last year's school shooting in Sante Fe.
The guests at the South Texas summer barbecue were once strangers whose lives have now been intertwined by tragedy.
"I was a substitute teacher that was shot in the Santa Fe High School mass shooting," said Flo Rice. "We became close with Sutherland Springs. They've reached out to us because after their shooting, they came to help us, kind of show us this support, and we became friends with them."
Rice said she had no idea how to navigate the long road to recovery until she and her husband, Scot Rice, met survivors from the Sutherland Springs shooting.
"So they came here early on after our shooting and were able to tell us what we would probably be going through because they were six months down the road further in the healing process or the grieving process," Scot Rice said. "And so they were there for us to get advice from, and several have stayed in contact with them weekly."
Saturday's gathering was the idea of Grace Johnson, another Sante Fe shooting survivor.
"I thought it'd be great to bring us all together. Nothing political, just somewhere where we can all understand what each other is going through because with a tragedy like the Santa Fe High School shooting or Sutherland Springs shooting, it's hard to talk to family or friends who don't live where you live, who weren't there. Even though they're three and a half hours away, they do know what we're going through," Johnson said.
Stephen Willeford, one of the hosts for the barbecue, was the first person to respond to the shooting at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, grabbing his gun and firing at the gunman.
A year and a half removed from that horrific scene, the memories are never far away.
"That's what it's about is getting together with people that have been through very similar experiences," Willeford said. "Because we understand each other and we understand what they're going through."
Forever linked in heartache and tragedy, a group of people from two small towns standing together is yet another reminder that evil didn't win.
"I mean, this was the whole point of this, to bring everybody together, and I'm glad that it's done that," Johnson said. "Yes, something awful and evil happened. We can't stop evil. We can change how we react to it."