Jessica Phillips: A week after a mass shooting, we in West Texas rise with strength and our faith

Editor’s note: This is Jessica Phillips’ account of the impact of the Aug. 31 mass shooting in and around her home community of Odessa, Texas. A gunman killed seven people and wounded 22 before he was killed in a shootout with police.

“Don’t leave the house!” I yelled as I threw open the door and searched for my husband. I could not hide my panicked eyes from him or our daughter. I held up my phone to indicate I had just received news through social media: a mass shooting was taking place just blocks away from our business.

Local news broke in with coverage, insisting people stay in their homes. Businesses were on lockdown. Our streets were not safe. Sirens screamed through the neighborhood as emergency workers responded to scenes of shock and chaos. My phone buzzed steadily for the next few hours as family, friends and neighbors made a roll call.

When the shooter was killed by our brave police force a sad relief washed over me.

TEXAS POLICE OFFICER THANKS WOMAN FOR SURPRISE, EMOTIONAL NOTE FOLLOWING ODESSA SHOOTING

For the next 24 hours, our community inhaled a steady stream of information. But for affected families, there is no real relief in the days that follow these acts of violence. Seven people shot dead, 22 injured. My wide-eyed 8-year-old girl did not leave our side for two days. She slept with us. She held hands with us. She prayed with us. She cried with us. We were all shaken.

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Gathering in public was unsettling; even coming together in sacred places, like our church, was uncomfortable. But on Sunday morning we woke up and we went. We needed our faith community more than ever.

We hugged our friends, shared our fears, wiped away tears. In these small acts of love and community, we divided and shouldered one another’s pain and disbelief. Nothing felt normal or safe as is had just 24 hours before.

Monday was the Labor Day holiday, so we hunkered down at home and nested. I cleaned out closets and drawers, and I cooked. I was not alone for one minute because my blue-eyed girl followed me from room-to-room shadowing my every step. She asked me again and again if we were absolutely, positively certain that the police had gotten the bad guy.

“Yes, baby, they got him,” I told her.

“But what if a different bad guy shows up with a gun, like at school?” she asked.

I couldn’t lie to her and tell her it would never happen again. Because I knew, and now she knew, “never” and “always” didn’t exist anymore. She might not always be safe. She might never know a world where safe existed.

And then she said words that took my breath away.

“Mom, if a bad guy with a gun comes to my school, please don’t come to the school to look for me because he might shoot you in the parking lot, and I don’t want you to get hurt,” she said.

So, this is her new third grade reality. Lockdowns. Bad guys with guns shooting at innocent people in parking lots.

I scooped her into my lap and she cried, and her Daddy and I cried. We prayed together many times throughout the day. God felt close, yet, silent. And I felt relieved, yet, guilty, because my family was safe at home doing regular things; not in a hospital waiting room, or making funeral arrangements. Relief. Guilt. Tears. Repeat.

On Monday I decided that I hated Tuesday. I dreaded Tuesday. On Tuesday I would have to send my girl back to school. I woke that morning and immediately began an internal fight against dread, fear and anxiety.

I wanted to meet my child’s anxious gaze with loving, kind eyes. Eyes that reflected the faith that I have verbally taught her and long for her to have, too.  A faith that beckons us to walk not by sight.

A faith that says God is so good, which means that He is so grieved by acts of violence, hate and evil. A faith that says: “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

I wanted to tell her that this morning might not be the morning when the joy comes, but rest assured, it’s coming. I wanted to tell her she might wake up mourning every morning for a long season. And then one miraculous morning she will wake and the mourning will not cripple her in the ways it had all the days before. She will wake up one morning and joy will fill her again. Morning is coming!

But on this morning, just two days following a mass shooting that unhinged my entire community, my family and my world, we still left for school with quaking hearts and trembling knees. Joy had not yet arrived that morning, but prayer made a comeback in schools all over Odessa, Texas on Tuesday.

Students stood circling campuses all over our city, hand-in-hand, heads bowed, different belief systems, yet one heart crying out for peace. Officers surrounded the hospital with police lights blazing in a show of comradery where one of their fallen brothers was being discharged.

Families of the slain took to the media to shout with a loud voice that this is not grounds for another political debate about guns, but instead it’s a cry to begin a new conversation.

My good friend Scott Windham took to social media with this anthem for our community: “The sun will rise and so will we .... We will surround each other and we will be better tomorrow than we were today. Our faith is solid and our hope endures.”

Today our city remains a crime scene. Yellow police tape lines 15 different areas where a deranged person inflicted horror upon sons, daughters, wives, husbands, teenagers, and even a baby. But that yellow tape reminds me of my friend’s words. Just as our hot West Texas sun sets, ushering in the night, that bright yellow sun will rise again when morning comes.

And we will also rise.

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We rise with more courage each day. We rise when we see a single mother create and sell “West Texas Strong” T-shirts, donating all proceeds to the family of a man shot and killed in front of his wife and two children.

We rise when we make donations to the GoFundMe accounts for victims and their families. We rise when local funeral homes offer free funeral services for victims. We rise when restaurant employees volunteer overtime to make and deliver meals to first responders still working around the clock.

We rise when grief counselors offer services to our schools and churches. Weeping lasts for the night but joy comes in the morning ... when we choose to rise.

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This is the truth in which I want my child to rest. Despite the evil and wickedness that remain in this world, there are greater things: faith, hope and love.

I hope she will walk confidently in these truths today and in the days ahead. The bad guys may try to bring hell. But we are the good guys, so let’s give the world a glimpse of heaven.