2017-11-15 / Local

Family, friendship, and unmatched valor

By Ken Leonard
Special to the Wilson County News

One of my earliest memories is driving at night in the rain to my aunt and uncle’s farm in Sutherland Springs to see my newborn cousin, Stephen.

Growing up, the Willeford Dairy Farm was a place I spent a lot of time, milking cows, hauling hay, hunting quail, and — in recent years — a lot of shooting practice. Stephen is the best shot I have ever seen. I have said that he is the Atticus Finch of Wilson County.

The farm was a place of endless adventure for me, my brothers, and cousins. We were truly part of a bigger family and our faith in God was the subtext of everything.

About the same time, we moved from Hondo to Floresville. I was the new kid in a strange and new class. It was a friendly red-haired kid named Bryan that gave me a sense of belonging. He lived just around the corner from me, and the field behind our houses also became an endless place of adventure for me, my brothers, my cousins, Bryan, his sister JoCheryl, and our neighbor, John Lackness. It was a near-perfect childhood spent with family and friends.

In 1993, Stephen’s parents were driving a motorcycle and were killed by a drunk driver who hit them head-on on F.M. 539. After their passing, the farm was divided between my cousins, and Stephen got my favorite parcel.

When I got married, we settled in Forney and saw our South Texas family and friends less often. I usually saw Stephen when we would go hunting or shooting on family land near Floresville and Sutherland Springs. I would often stop by Bryan’s canvas shop in Floresville to visit with him, his wife Karla, and their incredible family. All of us had grown up to embrace our faith in God and it was at the cornerstone of our relationship, even though our family attended the Church of Christ and Bryan’s attended the Baptist church.

The last time I saw Bryan a couple of weeks ago, I borrowed some tools to work on my dad’s house. Bryan had moved his canvas shop to his farm in Sutherland Springs and he told me that he had moved his membership from the Baptist church in Floresville to Sutherland Springs. He told me of his love for the people of the little congregation as a radio played Gospel sermons in the background in his shop. When I returned the tools, I brought my brother, Shawn, who is mentally challenged; he loves the Holcombes and we got to see and visit with Karla again.

In the middle of coordinating the relief effort after Hurricane Harvey with 32 churches, I had little time. But I put the phone on silent and spent an hour visiting with my friends. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see them.

Last Sunday, while I preached about disaster relief at the Church of Christ in Smithville, Bryan was scheduled to preach at the little Baptist church in Sutherland Springs while the pastor was out of town. What happened next is now known far and wide.

I am unspeakably hurt and proud at the same time.

The loss of my friend and his family is a constant pain that won’t go away. I have talked several times with JoCheryl, Bryan’s sister, who lives in California. She asked if she could lean on me now as a brother; it’s a role I will warmly embrace.

My heart goes out to the surviving members of Bryan and Karla’s family, especially their mom and dad.

Like Bryan, my cousin Stephen is an exemplary Christian man, a terrific husband and father. He isn’t comfortable with the title of “hero” but, in my eyes, his deed ranks with those of recipients of the Congressional Medal Of Honor. I’m certain most would agree.

He is just a simple Christian man with a big heart. He ran into gunfire barefooted, with no body armor, shot accurately under fire, and stopped further senseless murders.

It’s not just me calling Stephen a hero; many members of law enforcement have said it.

That makes Stephen a hero among heroes.

It is true that the best way to stop an evil person with a gun is with a good person with a gun. On Nov. 5, a good Christian man with a gun stopped an evil man with an arsenal of weapons and ammo.

Hug your family; call your friends you haven’t seen in years. Tell everyone you know how much you care about them.

And as for Bryan, his family, and fellow church members — don’t think about the loss. Think about the big celebration in Heaven.

Pray for Sutherland Springs.

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