Stephen Willeford ran barefoot out of his home to fire on the murderer with his AR-15, ending the attack.
About the time you read this story, swarms of so-called “mainstream” media will be descending on the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, hoping to grab some ratings and push their gun control agenda by reliving the horrible tragedy of last November.
But according to Stephen Willeford, the NRA member armed with an AR-15 who courageously helped end the attack at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church on Nov. 5, 2017, that’s not how those in the community want to be seen by the rest of America.
A new sanctuary, capable of holding nearly 300 worshippers, is under construction.
“The folks in Sutherland Springs aren’t looking forpity,” Willeford said when our America’s 1st Freedom team recently visited the small, tight-knit community southeast of San Antonio. “I think that’s why so many times they don’t want to do interviews, because they don’t want pity. The people who go to that church put on a smile on Sunday morning and greet you so happily. And people say, ‘How can they be happy?’
“I believe happy people decide to be happy. No matter what tragedy faces them, they get up in the morning and they decide, ‘Today I’m going to be joyful.’”
Recall that on that fateful day, a man entered the church during Sunday morning service and began shooting parishioners as they huddled beneath the pews. He had left the church twice to reload, and had just walked out a third time to grab more magazines.
Willeford, who heard the shots from his nearby home, ran barefoot from his house, took cover behind a pickup truck and traded shots with the killer. He hit the man twice, ending the attack and forcing the murderer to flee. Willeford then jumped in a passing pickup truck and chased the killer, who finally wrecked his vehicle. Cornered and sorely wounded by Willeford’s shots to the leg and side, the man took his own life before police could apprehend him.
Rod Green, chairman of the church’s board, runs the food pantry with his wife, Judy. “God is in charge of everything.”
In the end, 26 innocent lives had been brutally snuffed out, and another 20 people were wounded.
Nearly a year later, one might expect any story about Sutherland Springs to focus on the death, destruction and loss of that day. But a visit to the church proved just the opposite.
The Sutherland Springs story is one of hope, of perseverance, of a community moving forward in ways that seem impossible.
And mostly, it’s a story of faith—a faith that is difficult to imagine given what the survivors and others in the community experienced.
Consider Julie Workman, a surgical nurse and children’s Sunday School teacher at the church. Workman and her two sons were shot in the Nov. 5 attack. While still bleeding from a gunshot wound to the chest, Workman began assisting, first determining who was dead and who was not, then tying tourniquets and working to save the wounded.
With such horrific pictures burned into her mind, Workman now focuses on hope and moving forward.
“It was very much a test of our faith,” she said. “Everything that we believe, whether God is good? And I can stand here 10 months out saying, ‘Yes, God’s good,’ because I have seen what people with good hearts and good minds have done trying to repair and build us individually and build this church back up.
Though wounded herself, Julie Workman tended to others until help arrived. “God has a reason for allowing bad things to happen.”
“My story is that God is real, God is here with us, God has a reason for allowing bad things to happen. What we do with that and what we learn from that [are] going to be very important.”
Workman also preaches preparedness. She believes all people should learn from Sutherland Springs and be better prepared for such a situation.
“First, quit saying, ‘It can’t happen here,’” she said. “Be vigilant and alert. Be prepared, educated. Do the training—and not just for guns and shooting. Do the training for medical assisting. It was 45 minutes before EMS and first responders got here to us. Stop The Bleed is a huge program people should be aware of. How many people know CPR? How many people know basic first aid? If you are waiting for somebody else to do it, life’s going to be lost.”
Rod Green, chairman of the church’s board of trustees and head of the Stewardship Committee, also emphasized the importance of faith and preparedness. Green and his wife, Judy, run the church’s food pantry, named By His Grace, on the church grounds.
Green always carries a gun to services at Sutherland Springs First Baptist. But on that particular morning, he was running late due to an errand, and he arrived at the church shortly after Willeford had put an end to the shooting. Two other members who usually carry during services were also absent that morning.
“I want the rest of America to see that God is in charge of everything,” Green said. “The enemy, which is the devil, took a strong blow at us and did not win—will not win. We are up and strong, and getting stronger every day. We’ve got more people here going to church than ever before, we’ve got new members coming all the time, our pantry is growing. We’re a serving church—always have been—and even more serving now.
“Like it says on our marquee out front, ‘Evil Will Not Win.’”
David Colbath, shot eight times in the attack, says they “haven’t sat around and cried, ‘Woe is me!’”
Green said church members are now more prepared than ever. Church leaders have installed security cameras and one-way doors that lock when the service starts, and there are also eight to 10 people armed during each service now.
“Awareness is extremely important, and we are more aware now,” he said. “If you’re aware of your surroundings, you have less chance of being attacked.”
Since the attack, instead of withering away, the church has miraculously experienced incredible growth. A congregation that saw about half of its 50 regular attendees murdered in one morning now regularly has 150 to 200 people attending its Sunday morning service. And construction has started on a large new sanctuary designed to hold 300.
New youth leader Rick Wesley grew up in Sutherland Springs; his parents were once the youth leaders at the church. Wesley stepped into the role after the church’s youth leader and his wife were killed in the Nov. 5 attack.
“I think with what is being built right there, the future is looking good,” Wesley said, pointing to the new construction. “Before this happened, I never thought I’d see something like that coming into the Springs. But God has his reasons.
“I think the new church—the new building—is going to be great for everybody. Yes, we’ll still have memories in this place, but we’re going to make some new ones, too. Everyone will have their own remembrances and memories, and we’ll make our own new road in the new church as we go forward.”
Wesley was helping an uncle put on a memorial run near where his family lives, so he wasn’t at church the day of the shooting. Yet he has seen his faith strengthened by watching the congregation unite after the tragedy.
Rick Wesley, the church’s new youth leader, is amazed at how the congregation is still “seeking God.”
“All of these people, like our pastor, how I’ve seen them handling this …” Wesley said, at an obvious loss for words. “The way they are still focusing on God and seeking God, and keeping all of us seeking God like we should, is amazing.”
David Colbath, a survivor who owns a construction business in the area, agrees. He was shot eight times, with one bullet passing only a millimeter over his heart. Colbath said people sometimes wonder what’s different about his church.
“First of all, we’re a very forgiving church. We’re a very forgiving people, as we’ve been called to be forgiving,” he said. “The other thing is, a majority of us really haven’t sat around and cried ‘Woe is me!’ Look at Kris Workman (Julie’s son) in a wheelchair still leading the praise and worship team. His life is not ruined, it’s just changed.”
Colbath believes that it is far more important to focus on the future than the past, and faith plays a major role in that focus.
“I took multiple rounds—ankles, calf, back, lower back, buttocks, arm,” he said. “There are a lot of things I can’t do anymore. But I’m focusing on what I can do. And I’m focusing on what I can do in the name of God and the name of Christ. I want people to see, ‘Is there a God? These people say there is. What’s different about them?’”
“People have asked me what America can do for Sutherland Springs. And I’ve always answered, ‘Be more like Sutherland Springs.’”
That question brings us back to Willeford, the hero who hates being referred to as such. Having also been shot at by the killer, he is a hero and a survivor. Willeford didn’t attend Sutherland Springs First Baptist before Nov. 5, but now is a steady fixture, attending nearly every time the opportunity arises. There, he’s with those he now considers part of his family—people he loves dearly.
“People have asked me what America can do for Sutherland Springs,” he said. “And I’ve always answered, ‘Be more like Sutherland Springs.’
“People from big cities always say, ‘I’d never want to live in a little town like Sutherland Springs. Everyone has always got their nose in your business.’ What I would say is, if you don’t have bad business, that’s not a bad deal. What I mean by that is the people of Sutherland Springs know what’s going on in your life. And they come to help before you know to ask.
“Sutherland Springs is what America used to be. We still are. We are a community that cares about each other.”
In the end, Willeford is proud of his little town, and his church that has faced so much hardship.
“Nov. 5 did not define Sutherland Springs,” he said. “Instead, Nov. 5 shined a light on who Sutherland Springs already was for the rest of the world to see. We were that community before Nov. 5. We were the community that I wanted to raise my kids in, because I saw something special here before the tragedy.
“That man was evil. But this community is good. And good always wins.”
Mark Chesnut has been the editor of America’s 1st Freedom magazine for 18 years and is an avid hunter, shooter and political observer.