National News

‘Please Pray’: Santa Fe Is a Town That Has Long Found Comfort in Faith

Posted May 18, 2018 9:33 p.m. EDT

They are praying today in Santa Fe, Texas. They often are, but after Friday, the need feels bottomless. Even before the gunman stopped shooting, even before the headlines reported tragedy, even before they knew it was 10 dead at the high school in the middle of town, a plea hurried out from person to person, screen to screen.

“Please pray,” began one text message sent to a mothers’ prayer list. “My niece is not accounted for. Was in art when shooting took place.”

“URGENT PRAYER REQUEST!!” read another. “I don’t have details but was just informed that there is an active shooting going on at Santa Fe high school.”

Their requests were heeded. “Prayers lifted for the Santa Fe schools right now,” someone wrote.

There have been prayers sent from Nigeria and from Grapevine, Texas, from Virginia and São Paulo. Vice President Mike Pence offered prayers from the White House. They are words that, however sincere, have come to seem routine — even cynically so, to some Americans who see in them an evasion of the gun-control debate — when American communities find themselves plunged into grief.

But in Santa Fe, where football players appeal to the Lord before Friday night games, where church on Sunday is all but a given, where the school district once went all the way to the Supreme Court to preserve the right to sponsor prayer, these expressions of faith bind the community.

On Friday, inside the high school, they bound the survivors together. As gunfire roared through the hallways, several students hid in a classroom, forming a prayer circle.

“We were hearing gunshots and many kids were having panic attacks,” Grace Johnson, 18, the school band chaplain, told CNN. “We sat in a circle and prayed for all of our peers and that they were going to be all right. We prayed for whoever was doing this that something changes in them.”

If Rindy Hitchcock’s daughter had not texted at 7:37 a.m. to alert her that something was wrong at school, she would have known moments later from the prayer requests that began buzzing on her phone and continued through the day. Hitchcock, scrambling to account for her three children at the school, was grateful for the prayers offered to her and the opportunity to pray for others.

“For my family, prayer is a great source of strength and comfort,” she said. “A peace washes over you when you know you don’t have the strength and someone can intercede for you.”

At Saltgrass Cowboy Church, where Hitchcock serves as secretary, anyone can submit a request for prayer that is relayed to dozens of other congregants. Sometimes there are multiple requests a day. Someone’s grandfather is getting an operation. A child is sick.

In February, a few days after a loud noise thought to be gunshots put Santa Fe High on lockdown for an hour, members of the Saltgrass church gathered in the school parking lot to offer prayers, drawing several students and a few dozen adults even at 6 a.m.

In Santa Fe, faith was once so omnipresent that it led to a five-year legal battle over how much of it could be sanctioned by schools in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Every Friday night, Santa Fe High School had been allowing students to deliver prayers over the loudspeaker before football games kicked off. Mormon and Catholic families filed a lawsuit to stop the practice, and in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in Santa Fe v. Doe that the loudspeaker prayers violated the separation of church and state. But, the court said, students could themselves initiate prayer, inside or outside of school grounds, and they continued to do so after the decision came down.

During the legal wrangling, Marian Ward was one of the students who fought to try to keep the loudspeaker prayer. When a lower court ruled that the school could not prevent Ward, a Baptist preacher’s daughter, from leading the prayer, she asked the Lord for safety and good sportsmanship the next Friday night in front of reporters and cheering supporters.

Despite the Supreme Court loss, students at Santa Fe High School are still praying, but just not over the loudspeaker. Esta O’Mara, 15, a freshman, said students often wear T-shirts with Bible verses, and a history teacher has been known to invoke “our Lord and Savior” during class. On Instagram, she said, she has seen videos posted by football players from the locker room in a prayer circle, to which they often add an emoji of the cross.

O’Mara, who is Catholic, said the school “doesn’t make it a point to have religion not present.”

Hitchcock, 49, graduated from Santa Fe High School in 1987, when prayers were still broadcast to the entire school stadium before football games. She thinks they still should be. But her three children who attend Santa Fe now, and an older daughter who graduated in 2016, did not want for prayer, she said.

One Santa Fe teacher holds optional Bible study in his classroom during lunch once a week. The fellowship of Christian Athletes meets after school. And sports teams still pray, only more quietly.

“They may not let us do it across the loudspeaker for the whole world to hear it,” Hitchcock said. “But our kids are still getting up and doing it.”

For many in Santa Fe, the past year has drawn on all the reserves of faith they have. There was Hurricane Harvey; some in town are still recovering and rebuilding from the storm. There was the February lockdown scare at the high school. And now this.

“From Hurricane Harvey, to that, to this, it’s just — I shouldn’t have to deal with this, nobody should,” said Dakota Shrader, 16, a student at the high school. But, she added, “The grace of God will lead me to be safe.” Among those sending prayers Santa Fe’s way on Friday was Ward. She would ask for peace and comfort for her hometown, she said; she would give thanks and praise for the first responders.

But as for a public prayer, of the kind she once offered when the world was watching: “Sometimes it’s the thing to do,” she said, “and sometimes it’s better to hug people and be quiet.”