James Long Jr. traced his hand on the vestibule wall inside the old yellow brick church here. He was trying to find the bullet marks.
A gunman had burst into the sanctuary on a Sunday morning in June 1980as the congregation was singing a hymn. He shouted “This is war!” and opened fire, killing three men, one woman and a 7-year-old girl.
Mr. Long, 63, had been sitting in a pew with his parents when he heard a commotion behind him. He knelt down by one of the dying, Kenneth A. Truitt, his best friend’s father. “He just looked at me and said, ‘It hurts, Junior,’” Mr. Long said. “I took my jacket off and put it under his head.”
The First Baptist Church in Daingerfield has taken on a new role in recent days, becoming a sister congregation to the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. The two rural churches are separated by 400 miles yet bound by eerily similar attacks 37 years apart that have tested and defined them both.
The two shootings, one in an unincorporated community southeast of San Antonio and the other in a blue-collar steel-mill town northeast of Dallas, unfolded at roughly the same moment during Sunday morning services — at about 11:20 a.m. They were both carried out by gunmen who barged through the front doors dressed for war in bulletproof vests and armed with military-style AR-15 rifles and pistols. Like in Sutherland Springs, the pastor in Daingerfield was out that Sunday, and the gunman was driven by revenge and eventually took his own life.
On top of that, the attack in Sutherland Springs was filmed on a church video camera, although the authorities have not released it to the public; the one in Daingerfield was also recorded, and broadcast live on a local AM radio station.
And although the recent shooting was far worse with 26 dead, the two attacks were ultimately brought to an end by bystanders who risked their lives to save others.
Nearly four decades before Stephen Willeford confronted the gunman in Sutherland Springs with a rifle and shot him twice outside the church, three unarmed men in Daingerfield used their brawn and bare hands to charge at and wrestle the intruder. Two of the three men were killed, including Mr. Truitt.
“I think everyone who was here on June 22, 1980, has a sense of empathy with Sutherland Springs,” said Mr. Long, as he stood in the vestibule. “We know what it was like to be interrupted at a place that you think is safe by gunfire.”
Mr. Long and other senior members of the church have been reliving that Sunday following the attack in Sutherland Springs. At a Wednesday night Bible study session, they signed a card for the Sutherland Springs congregation. Perry Crisp, the son of Norman Crisp, the Daingerfield pastor in 1980, posted a letter on his Facebook page the morning after the shooting.
“Dear Evil,” wrote Mr. Crisp, a Baptist pastor himself. “You can’t win. I’ve read the Book. You lose. You just sent 26 people to Heaven. How is that a win for you?”
Here in the piney woods of East Texas, not far from the Arkansas and Louisiana state lines, First Baptist’s journey after the shooting provides a rough road map for what lies ahead for the Sutherland Springs church. The recovery has been hard, slow, improvised.
Worshipers, many of whom either survived the shooting or are relatives of those wounded or killed, still gather every Sunday, face the pulpit, put their backs to the front doors and sing gospel hymns, as they did 37 years ago. They no longer worship in the yellow brick building. A new red brick sanctuary was built behind the old one in 1986. The old sanctuary was turned into a fellowship hall.
Just outside the front steps stands a simple black monument with the names of the five victims inscribed in the stone: Gene Gandy, 50; Thelma Richardson, 78; Gina Linam, 7; Mr. Truitt, 49; and James Y. McDaniel, 53, the other man who died after rushing the gunman.
Those who survived the attack get tears in their eyes when they talk about Mr. Truitt and Mr. McDaniel, a railroad worker and local baseball player everyone called Red because of his hair. They say they owe their lives to Mr. Truitt, Mr. McDaniel and Christopher Hall, the third man who tackled the gunman, and that the shooting in Daingerfield could have been far deadlier than the one in Sutherland Springs were it not for their actions.
The gunman, Alvin Lee King III, 45, a former high-school mathematics teacher, had two rifles, two pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition as he stood in the vestibule behind a set of swinging doors. More than 300 people had packed the small church that Sunday, including several of Mr. King’s former students. Mr. King wore an Army helmet and two flak jackets, and he had affixed bayonets onto his AR-15 and M-1 rifles. He had been set to go on trial the following day on incest charges. He had been indicted after his daughter filed a complaint against him, and Mr. King had asked church members to serve as character witnesses in the trial, but they had turned him down. And, like Devin P. Kelley, the gunman in Sutherland Springs, Mr. King had been an outspoken atheist.
The congregation was in the middle of “More About Jesus” when Mr. King started shooting. Mr. Hall jumped on Mr. King’s back. Then Mr. McDaniel and Mr. Truitt came down the center aisle.
“I think now in 2017 it would register on me clearly what was happening,” said Steve Cowan, who was sitting in church and is now the local district attorney. “But in 1980 it was a different time. It was so unexpected to be in a small church on Sunday morning, singing a hymn with the people that you’ve grown up with in a town of 3,000 and see someone dressed up basically as a combat soldier and enter with assault rifles.”
Earlier that morning, Mr. McDaniel had been baling hay when he told his helpers he had to leave. “He said, ‘I missed church last Sunday. I’m going this Sunday,’” said Kathy Tittle, 65, Mr. McDaniel’s daughter. “So he went home and changed clothes and they went to church.” Her father was a tall, athletic country boy, who raised cattle and enjoyed hunting for frogs with a spear, a Southern pastime known as frog gigging. Ms. Tittle’s mother, Laverne McDaniel, had been sitting next to her husband when she was shot three times.
The First Baptist survivors have struggled for years with nightmares. They spoke of their lingering anxiety and fear as they sit in church on Sundays. Some started carrying concealed weapons into church after the shooting, and First Baptist created a security team that patrols the perimeter during Sunday services. Members of the church take turns serving on the team.
“I carried a gun with me when I patrolled,” said Gary Pollan, 76, who had been in the church that day with his wife and two children and who now attends another Baptist church in Daingerfield. “You won’t catch me at church without a pocketknife, at least.”
Mr. Pollan’s wife, Judy, 74, who hid her 10-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend under a pew, recalled going back to the church the Sunday after the 1980 shooting. “There was a lady across the way from us, she had a walking cane,” she said. “She had hooked it on the back of her seat. And it fell off on that hardwood floor, and it just popped, and it nearly scared me to death.”
Bo Stevens’s mother also hid him and his little sister under a pew that day, and he remembers peeking his head out enough to see a haunting sight: the gun smoke wafting in the sunlight coming through the stained-glass windows. He was 9. Months later, he was at a college football game with his family, and a cannon boomed after a touchdown.
“I remember this flash of terror at that sound,” said Mr. Stevens, 47, who became a Baptist pastor in nearby Naples and who said that the shooting — and the bravery of those three men — ultimately drew him closer to church. “They were heroes that day, real ones, and I’m here because of them. Some of that kind of motivates your life, especially spiritually.”