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A former pastor grieves the loss of his great-granddaughter in Uvalde

Retired pastor Julián Moreno, 80, lost his great-granddaugther during the Robb Elementary School shooting.
Patricia Lim/KUT
Retired pastor Julián Moreno, 80, lost his great-granddaugther during the Robb Elementary School shooting.

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UVALDE, Texas — A retired Baptist pastor in Uvalde, Julián Moreno, stepped up to the pulpit last week to console his congregation during the most soul-jarring event in the history of this community.

He did so as he worked through his own grief. Pastor Moreno's great-granddaughter was among the children slaughtered in the school massacre.

The current pastor, Carlos Contreras, called a special service on Thursday at Uvalde's Primera Iglesia Bautista, the city's 113-year-old bilingual church.

"Buenas tardes, hermanos. Good evening, everyone," he begins. "We are here because of what has happened this week. We have two special young girls that attended our church, who we will miss and absolutely love."

The bright smiling faces of the girls are projected on the screen behind him: 10-year-old Alexandria "Lexi" Rubio, who's holding her honor roll certificate, and 9-year-old Eliahna "Ellie" García, in her basketball jersey. They both perished on Tuesday in the school shooting.

But what people mainly came for was to hear from their former pastor, Julián Moreno, 80 years old, who retired last year after 50 years of preaching, marrying, baptizing and burying. Lexi Rubio was his great-granddaughter.

Community members mourned at Primera Iglesia Bautista on Thursday as retired pastor Julián Moreno, great-grandparent of one of the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, preaches.
/ Patricia Lim/KUT
/
Patricia Lim/KUT
Community members mourned at Primera Iglesia Bautista on Thursday as retired pastor Julián Moreno, great-grandparent of one of the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, preaches.

A dignified man in dark clothes, a paisley tie, and a stoic expression steps onto the blue-carpeted altar.

"Let us not forget to pray for these families that have been affected," he says. "In my family's case we grieve the loss of our beautiful Lexi, a fourth grader with dreams and aspirations."

In her young life, Lexi already had two things she wanted to accomplish, according to her great-grandfather. She wanted to become a lawyer, and visit Australia. "Why, I don't know, but she wanted to go to Australia," he says.

Church members mourn at Primera Iglesia Bautista in Uvalde on Thursday.
/ Patricia Lim/KUT
/
Patricia Lim/KUT
Church members mourn at Primera Iglesia Bautista in Uvalde on Thursday.

The extended family of Ellie García sits in the rear pews, their faces frozen in sorrow. Also in the congregation are Baptists who've come here from across the state to embrace Hermano Julián.

Moreno has been a fixture in the Spanish-speaking Baptist fellowship in Texas. He says this church was founded in 1909 as a place of worship for the Hispanic farmworkers who picked carrots, broccoli and onions that grew in the loamy soil irrigated by deep artesian wells.

Speaking in an interview before the service, Moreno says he was outside of his house a block from Robb Elementary School, watering his plants, when he heard gunfire.

"I knew that the arms were high-powered because it was very loud," he says. "When I got close to the school I heard two officers, one of them said the guy went into the building. I knew that that's where my great-granddaughter was at. I prayed for a miracle but also resigned myself to the worst."

The killer — an 18-year-old high-school dropout whose online life, friends say, grew more and more threatening — was shot and killed by law enforcement.

Moreno says a journalist asked him what he would say if he could speak to that young man.

"And I answered the following, 'I hold no hatred. He took something from our lives but God's love reminds me that I'm not here to judge a person.' "

Outside in the city of Uvalde, folks make their way to the town square to lay flowers at a spontaneous memorial, forensic investigators pore over details of the tragedy, and TV reporters prepare for their live shots. Inside the church, Pastor Moreno — at the pulpit he held for half a century — offers a closing thought.

"So to our community, seek God's comfort, find strength for the painful days ahead. There are funerals to attend. And I pray that these words will bring some strength in your life."

When the service is over, everyone embraces. Then they drift out into the hot South Texas night to face the days, weeks and months ahead.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Marisa Peñaloza
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.