Pastor uses experience from West Explosion to guide Uvalde through tragedy

Lessons learned from a Central Texas tragedy almost ten years ago are being used to help the City of Uvalde recover.
Published: Jun. 28, 2022 at 11:53 PM CDT
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WEST, Texas (KWTX) - Lessons learned from a Central Texas tragedy almost ten years ago are being used to help the City of Uvalde recover.

John Crowder, the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of West, says the deadly explosion at West Fertilizer Co. in 2013 wasn’t in vain because it’s teaching communities, like Uvalde, how to heal and overcome.

“Nothing is worth the loss that families in my community experienced, but it does help add a little bit of meaning if I can take what we’ve learned and share it with others to make their experience easier,” said Crowder. “Without it there’s just no meaning, no purpose in that kind of tragedy.”

Ever since the explosion, which killed 15 people and left the small town leveled, Crowder has been studying disasters and how to guide people through them.

“I didn’t know anything about disasters--who studies disasters when you don’t have to?” said Crowder. “But we learned very quickly through our recovery, and I really felt a sense of calling to continue that study, so I’ve been working since then with churches and communities who had different kind of disasters, just sharing from our experience.”

Last month, Crowder got a call from a friend he met while getting his doctorate of ministry from George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco.

“One of my colleagues who was earning his doctorate at the same time was Tony Gruben--Tony is a pastor in Uvalde,” said Crowder.

Gruben is the Pastor at Baptist Temple Church in Uvalde and, knowing Crowder knew tragedy, asked him to come down to Uvalde to help guide ministers there so they could, in turn, help the community heal following the loss of 21 people, 19 of them children, during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24.

“I could tell that there were still in shock and exhaustion,” said Crowder who got there the Monday after the tragedy. “I think it just brought some comfort to have everybody around a table, together, until that time they had each been trying to serve individually to take care of their people the best they could, but getting around a table was one big step forward.”

Crowder says the audience grew and he ended up delivering the presentation to a large crowd of faith-based leaders in the Uvalde Ministerial Alliance, the Red Cross, and even a White House Official who partners faith-based organizations with governmental agencies.

“I thought I was going to sit down with my buddy and kind of help him a little bit if I could, but when I got there it turned into more of a presentation, but that was good, I was glad that we had that opportunity,” said Crowder. “We had quite a meeting represented from the White House to the Red Cross to all kinds of denominational leaders there in Uvalde.”

Over a BBQ lunch at Baptist Temple Church, Crowder gave a presentation on what to expect when tragedy strikes, including how to relate to the different entities which arrive at the scene, like the media.

“Most pastors don’t have an opportunity to deal with media very much, and when there’s a tragedy all the sudden the media is there, so I was able to give them suggestions from maybe our experiences, if we don’t work with media than the media have to come up with a story, so it’s important to go ahead and sit down and talk with the media so they can hear the story the way you want it to be presented,” said Crowder. “The Salvation Army, the Methodist group has fantastic disaster recovery organization, Texas Baptist Men usually show up for physical things, there’s two or three great organizations that usually show up with chaplains, so we talked about how all those groups work, which group does what and how they work together...unless you’ve been through something similar, you have no idea what to expect and you have no idea how the different entities who have all the sudden showed up on your backyard, you don’t know how they relate to each other.”

Crowder says, while every disaster is unique, there’s normally many similarities.

“It wasn’t an earthquake or hurricane or tornado like we’re used to experiencing, but we did know that much of what the community was going to experience emotionally was going to be very similar to other kinds of disasters, so I was able to show them what we’ve learned over the last almost ten years now, doing research into disaster recovery: there is kind of a timeline, a chart if you will, to show what to expect your community to experience emotionally.”

First there’s an “emotional climb” of unity, he says, but then comes a serious decline.

“There is this terrible emotional decline where folks are turning against each other, there’s a hopeless feeling, there’s impatience, misunderstandings, accusations and all that stuff, so we talked about preparing for that because we knew it was coming,” said Crowder. “And probably that’s where they are now, there’s a lot of accusations and a lot of heartache and a lot of angry feelings going on, and that’s understandable, that’s part of the process.”

However, the process for Uvalde will be different than most disasters, he says, because there’s no major property damage: their damage is internal.

“There’s nothing (physical) to fix,” said Crowder. “In this disaster, almost all of the work and recovery is going to fall on the shoulders of the local leaders, particularly pastors and counselors because it’s primarily an emotional and spiritual disaster.”

Crowder says he felt he made an impact in Uvalde by, at the very least, showing them they’re not the only ones who have suffered and survived.

“When it happens to you, you feel like ‘we’re the only people in the world who have ever suffered like this,’” said Crowder. “But talking about what to expect in the weeks and months ahead was helpful, they realized they weren’t in it alone.”

Gruben was thankful for Crowder’s insight.

“John’s wisdom and compassion in dealing with the situation gave comfort and encouragement for us to minister and serve in a very difficult time,” Gruben told KWTX. “His insight on the progression of emotions throughout the healing process has been, and I believe will be, beneficial in the days to come.”

As far as financial recovery, Crowder encouraged people to donate if they felt compelled, however, he warned the money won’t be going to fix physical things in this case.

“Because this was a terrible disaster, people responded like they always do which is to send money, and in this case most of the funeral costs and financial expenses were covered by the state or generous donations, so then the money became not apart of the recovery in a physical way but expressions of love and concern from all over the country, and if we see our donations in that way it’s helpful,” said Crowder. “The money in this case reminds us that giving in disaster is an expression of love and support and folks need that in a big way to know that people are there, it makes a big difference when we’re suffering, so we want to keep giving and doing and serving after disasters, just know that the results of your gift might not show up immediately.”

It’s been several weeks since Crowder was in Uvalde, but he’s been checking-in with Gruben and says they’re doing better.

“He said they’re doing very well,” said Crowder. “He said he and the other pastors had reached the point where they were able to sleep again, they’re eating again, they were regaining their strength and now they were ready to accept the responsibility of the emotional and spiritual healing that’s going to have to take place.”

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