It wasn't a regular night on the Floresville High School football field.
After days of humid, 80-degree weather, the temperature had made a sharp drop to the crisp 50s Wednesday evening. The metal bleachers were packed with nearly a thousand residents from nearby towns, wrapped in fleece blankets, scarves, and maroon and white sweaters stamped with 'FHS Tigers'. But they weren't there for a game.
The crowd had gathered at the small town stadium to join their community members in prayer, days after a gunman killed 26 people in a tiny white church just 10 miles down the road. To them, the victims of the Sutherland Springs shooting were family, friends, classmates, neighbors, a kid on their daughter's sports team, a familiar face at the grocery store, a Sunday school teacher. Tonight was the first time many of them had reunited since the Sunday attack.
After a three hour wait for some visitors, the shivering crowd stood in applause as an unlikely team strutted onto the field: Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senator Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, and a few other Texas congressmen. The crowd stood in silence, waiting as the politicians shook hands and patted each other on the back, smiling and chuckling at unheard jokes. They eventually settled as a man to their right strummed the first notes of a song — one that was clearly familiar to the audience.
"You're a good good father, it's who you are, it's who you are, it's who you are
," the crowd joined in as he sang. "And I'm loved by you, it's who I am, it's who I am, it's who I am
Family members of the victims, seated in a designated area off to the side, raised their palms up to the sky as they sang, eyes closed. In center stage, some of the politicians sang alone, while others mouthed uncertainly.
The night, for the community, was about group healing and recovery. For the officials in the spotlight, it was as much a sign of support and sympathy as it was a public reminder that they are God-fearing politicians.
"Whenever things occur that are beyond explanation there is only one source that has the answers and that is God almighty," said Gov. Abbott, who spoke before Pence. Abbott held up a document, announcing that he'd designated the coming Sunday, Nov. 12 as a statewide "Day of Prayer." It's the same gesture he made after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August.
Pence, who had spent the day visiting the wounded survivors of the shooting and speaking with the attack's first responders, said that faith was the only antidote to the "evil" that hit First Baptist Church Sunday. Well, faith and the neighbors who shot and pursued Kelley as he left the church, and, according to Pence "saved the lives of Americans as a result." He did not mention what else could have kept a man convicted of violently assaulting his family from spraying a church with bullets from a legally purchased firearm.
"Pray for the state of Texas. And while you're at it I'd ask you to pray for America," Pence said. "I believe with all my heart that as long as we remember that we are one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all that God will yet bless America."
The headline-grabbing politicians left the event before it was over, due to their "busy schedules," leaving locals to commiserate together. For some, Pence's visit had little to do with why they were there anyways.
"We'd be here whether the Vice President was coming or not," said a man named Roger, who asked not to share his full name. "We need to heal together."