Pastor John Crowder delivers a sermon during a First Baptist Church service… (Charlie Riedel / Associated…)
WEST, Texas — The selection from the Gospel according to John is read in Masses in Catholic Churches far and wide, chosen to celebrate the Easter season. But in the red-brick church in a small Texas town ravaged by an explosion, the words resonated as though they’d been picked just for them.
I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.
It’s been four days since the fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant on the outskirts of West killed 14 people, injured scores more and damaged and destroyed neighborhoods, with half of the city still cordoned off. Residents of just a few blocks of that area were allowed brief visits home to collect possessions and check on their property.
On Sunday, residents filled the town’s churches. People have been wearing “God Bless West” T-shirts and rubber bracelets made in the aftermath proclaiming “God Is Big Enough.”
“If this town didn't have faith,” said Kelly Nelson, 29, “it wouldn't have anything.”
“You know everyone's name, you know everyone's family,” she said. “It's going to be very difficult moving forward, but we're going to do it because of faith.”
The pews at Assumption Catholic Church were full as the Knights of Columbus — dressed in full regalia, with feathered hats and swords — led a procession and as a choir sang a worship song that also had been sung at a vigil days before:
Call me, guide me, lead me, walk beside me / I give my life to the Potter’s hand.
“There are many people who are hurting, many people who are suffering,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin, who led the Mass. West, he said, endured something that was “like a dream, like a nightmare — something that has come and gone but you haven’t been able to take it in.”
He urged worshipers to allow themselves and others the time and space to grieve.
The Mass in some ways resembled a typical Sunday service: Families came together, congregants welcomed each other as they found their seats and patted friends on the shoulder as they passed their pew.
Yet there were also small signs of what they were going through. One woman teared up as a lector read from Revelations:
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor with the sun or the heat strike them. ... God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
When the time came to offer a sign of peace to those around them in church, it lingered: Congregants stretched to shake the hand of someone farther away, crossed aisles and pulled others into embraces. In the communion line, many had red eyes, puffy faces and were sniffling. Some just looked worn out.
At the end of Mass, West’s mayor, Tommy Muska, updated the congregation on more streets that would be opened for residents to briefly return home, and told them about how shocked federal emergency officials were when he showed them the devastation. They were surprised, he said, that more lives weren’t lost.
“We’re very fortunate, if you can believe that,” he said.
He simply asked for patience. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s going to take us a long time.”
Through all of it, Muska said, there’s been at least “one miracle.” He said that one family’s chickens had been found and are still alive. And, for a moment, the sanctuary roared with laughter.