Yesterday, two men, who were strangers to each other at the time, made choices within seconds that ended a senseless act of mass murder and saved countless lives. With their actions, they not only put on full display what it means to be a ‘hero,’ but also what it means to be a ‘Texan’.
Upon receiving a call from his daughter that a man was shooting up the First Baptist Church, Stephen Willeford, a local plumber, grabbed his rifle, and ran, barefoot, into the street. Willeford engaged the shooter, and, by some accounts, fired a round into his side where the vest wasn’t protecting him. The shooter dropped his weapon and fled in his SUV. Mr. Willeford then hopped in the truck of a passerby, Johnnie Langendorff, and together, they gave chase at speeds surpassing 95 mph. When the killer crashed his vehicle in a ditch, Willeford held his weapon on the SUV until he was sure there was no movement from inside.
Wow. I mean…wow.
While far too many of us spent the day having existential slap-fights online over the value of posting “thoughts and prayers,” these two men, these two Texans, did what they had to do to stop a mass murderer, and they did it with little or no thought for their own safety. They didn’t hesitate. They didn’t weigh their options. They acted. They did what had to be done. And that’s the very definition of a hero.
It is also the very definition of a Texan.
It’s not necessarily something you can put into words, this thing about Texans, though many a cowboy poet and songwriter have tried. The very nature of its steely resolve makes it elusive for those of us who did not grow up here, but you know it when you see it. It’s in the courageous actions of two dudes in Sutherland Springs. It’s in the wake of the hundreds of civilian boats that took to the flood waters of Harvey after the storm had passed, their pilots working themselves into exhaustion as they pulled family after family from the rooftops. It’s all around you, every day, in the welcoming smiles and tipped hats and doors held open. It’s in the nods of the guys who jumped out of their cars and pushed me to the gas station when my tank ran out, in the early days after I first moved to San Antonio.
I have now lived in Texas for eight years, which is as long as I’ve lived anywhere. Still, I know that eight years’ residence does not yet make me a Texan. I’ll be that when I can find within myself a molecule of the kind of grit and courage that Stephen Willeford and Johnnie Langendorff showed us yesterday. I’ll be that when my faith and spirit rise to the level of the good people of Sutherland Springs, who have suffered an unimaginable crime against their community, and yet, with candles lit, they stand in vigil with their arms wrapped around each other, holding each other up.
In this, I have a long way to go before I earn the right to call myself a Texan, for Texans are the best people on earth. In peace and in storm.
God bless Sutherland Springs, and God bless Texas.