In the hours after evil’s latest assault on innocent people, I drifted about my house for most of Saturday. I felt unfocused, listless, numb. Most of all, I was unsettled by the fear that massacres such as the one that took 20 lives and forever altered dozens of others in El Paso are just another reality of living in 21st century America.

After I woke up Sunday to the news of yet another deadly shooting, this one in Dayton, Ohio, I knew it was time to get to church, a place I haven’t visited in almost a decade.

I picked a church I had never visited, Frisco’s Grace Avenue United Methodist Church. Its vibe is like so many family-oriented churches in the suburbs — a warm blanket of traditional Methodist liturgy that has been etched in my heart since childhood and a helter-skelter buzz of hyped-up youngsters and parents looking for a much-needed cup of at-best lukewarm coffee.

But even as the church announced its upcoming back-to-school “blessing of the backpacks” and students talked excitedly about their last days in Frisco before heading off to college, a heaviness hung over the congregation.

That’s because, as acknowledged repeatedly from the pulpit and in the pews, Grace Avenue is not that far from the neighborhoods where the El Paso shooting suspect grew up, and apparently, learned to hate.

As Joe Stobaugh, modern worship minister, said to the 11 a.m. congregation, “Lord, we have a lot of questions today.”


Stobaugh, 41, told me that he had started his day by posting to Facebook the Kyrie eleison, one of the church’s most ancient prayers: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

“I’m just so tired and so sad and so angry that we keep having to pray this prayer over mass shootings,” Stobaugh said.

Who really knows if it was a “God thing” or random coincidence, but Grace Avenue decided weeks ago that all its services this particular Sunday would be devoted to question-and-answer sessions on the topic of “gritty faith” — belief that doesn’t break down under real-world pressures.

At both the traditional worship service and the brand-new “modern” hour, many of the questions reflected deep concerns about how to navigate these treacherous times.

Some of what congregants asked — Why does God allow so many bad things to happen? — are questions older than dirt. Some cried out for action: Exactly what do we do to stop the harm, the violence, the destruction? How do we move the conversation from the altar to the community?

In one way or another, they all came back to this: How could God possibly be present amid the malice in El Paso?


None of the church leaders pretended to have all the answers. But Billy and Laura Echols-Richter, the church’s husband-and-wife pastor team, talked most eloquently about how too many young white males live with nothing but the screen that is in front of them — and the messages it sends them.

“People who live in isolation turn to desperation. And people who are desperate have little regard for life,” Billy Echols-Richter said.

The controversy around gun rights was front and center in the discussion, particularly, as Echols-Richter put it, “how we glorify and glamorize them.”

Laura Echols-Richter’s clarion call, in response, was for the people of Grace Avenue to figure out how to be people of influence. “What are we using our influence for?” was her challenge to the congregation.

Cooper Damm, 18, told me between services that it was chilling to think that someone with the “polarized thinking and violent intent” of the suspected shooter once attended a Frisco high school.

Damm, who is heading to Auburn University at the end of the week after graduating from Reedy High School, said that as he sat in church, “I was thinking, ‘This could happen anywhere. Am I going to be a part of that? Am I going to be a survivor? Am I going to be a victim?’ Thinking through what would happen in a situation like that.”


Janell Taylor, a Frisco mother of two high school students and manager of the Reedy High School cafe, told me that they felt “completely deflated” by what happened in El Paso.

“As a family, we talked about it,” she said. “There’s no hiding it from teenagers. We want to do something, but we’re not sure yet. We probably will start by calling our congressman.”

Taylor said that while she attends church almost every Sunday, she didn’t want to come today. “But I think it helps to be together with people, to discuss it and ask questions,” she said.

She also said the fact that the El Paso shooting suspect lived a short distance from her own family “does hit you harder.”

“It just goes to show it can come from anywhere,” she said. “You have to pay attention to the people in your midst because brokenness and need is everywhere.”

Stobaugh, who leads the brand new 11 a.m. contemporary service, graduated from the same high school as the shooting suspect, Plano Senior High, about two decades earlier.


Just last week Stobaugh had spoken to youth at a Plano Methodist church, preaching about what holiness looks like at the public school level.

“I told them it is reaching out to that student who is lonely, who is isolated, to help them find community,” he said.

He thought back on those words and reflected, “As you see these suspects, it’s the same profile over and over again. These kids could have known this person.”

When questions arose about the El Paso shooting during Stobaugh’s service, he responded, “This is stuff that is ours to own as well. This is a Collin County resident. This is one of our people.”

Stobaugh also spoke about the emptiness that had brought me to church this morning. “We have to do the spiritual work of not building a wall around our heart that this is normal,” he said.

“This is not God’s will,” he told the congregation. “This is not God’s ultimate dream for creation — to have mass shootings over and over and over again.”


He said he wanted to push leaders for change, and he encouraged congregants to sign up to help or join other advocacy groups.

“Prayers are vital, but prayers also should lead us into action,” he said.

Minister of outreach Jesseca Aziz also offered practical next steps, which she summarized as body, ballot and bucks.

Put yourself on the line, whether that’s mission work, protest or other action. Consider the importance of your vote and research carefully. Bucks means money, and where you are spending yours.

“A lot of people are great social justice warriors on Facebook, but we must have face-to-face sacred conversations and spark those throughout North Texas,” Aziz told the packed room. “Especially with people who are different than us, whomever we encounter in classrooms, at work or on the streets.”

As Wendy Child, modern worship director, closed out the service with a soaring original composition, some congregants prayed silently while others took the opportunity to light a candle for El Paso or for whatever sorrow weighed on their heart.

I lit one too. And I felt — if not better — a sense of hope. May it burn on.

Sharon Grigsby wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

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