The students from Santa Fe High School, where 10 people were killed in a school shooting Friday, had their baccalaureate services moved from the school to a church on Sunday.
The services, which were supposed to be held in the school’s auditorium, were instead held inside a packed Arcadia First Baptist Church, just two days after the shooting.
Speaker and Santa Fe graduate Aaron Chenoweth gave a short testimony about trials and tribulations this graduating class faced. He called on the community’s faith in God in the wake of the massacre.
‘This last Friday has been one heck of a day’ he said referencing the attack on his school.
‘One thing that I’ve always found, is love and trust in God, he is always there through thick and thin, he promotes healing love comfort and even in the most dire moments, a healing hand.’
‘My word to class 2018, and to others, is that if you trust in God he will always be there for you. If you give God the glory, you will always find comfort and love,’ he said, receiving a standing ovation.
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Santa Fe High School senior Aaron Chenoweth (pictured) spoke in a packed church Sunday for the graduates’ baccalaureate services. He called the shooting that claimed 10 lives Friday ‘one heck of a day’ and implored those affected to keep close with their faith while dealing with tragedy
Santa Fe High School graduates bow their heads in prayer during the baccalaureate service Sunday, just two days after a fellow 17-year-old student opened fire in the school
Pictures of victims of the Santa Fe High School shooting are displayed during a prayer vigil at Walter Hall Park also on Sunday
Jack Roady, the Galveston County district attorney, also delivered an emotional speech to the graduates.
‘You are entering into a war zone in this world, and it’s a spiritual war zone,’ said Roady.
Roady told the students that they were ‘suffering in ways that no one else can understand.’ He called on them to draw closer to their faith and each other.
Last year’s services drew around 25 people, however as the community has banded together in the wake of the devastating tragedy, this year’s services drew in around 200.
The pews were packed, with folding chairs placed down the aisles to accommodate the additional attendees to the Sunday service in the deeply religious community.
The baccalaureate is typically a religious celebration to honor school graduates.
Todd Penick, a graduating senior who is planning to attend Texas State University, said the overwhelming attendence at the service gave the grieving students a chance to reunite with friends and classmates.
‘Nobody is going to be OK in a couple of days,’ he said. ‘Nobody can look you in the eyes and tell you it’s OK. But we’re going to be OK because everyone is so unified.’
He added: ‘Family and friends and God, that’s what’s going to get us through this.’
An earlier mass at the Arcadia First Baptist Church also saw a packed house, which included a visit from Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
The students officially graduate on June 1, no word yet on where graduation will be held.
Nathan Jordan, 18, a senior student at Alvin High School sobbed at the Arcadia First Baptist Church during an earlier mass service on Sunday
The Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joined the congregation in prayer earlier on Sunday at the Arcadia First Baptist Church, where the baccalaureate graduation services were held later in the day
Meanwhile Roady faces the challenge of prosecuting the capital murder case against the teenager suspected of killing eight students and two substitute teachers.
He said the case presented the most deaths in one crime that he had ever faced.
The young graduates have to grieve their slain classmates and cope with their emotions as they try to heal after the mass shooting.
When ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ played, the seniors filed in wearing green caps and gowns. Most had serious looks on their faces, though a few smiled at people they recognized in the crowd.
Meanwhile, also on Sunday, hundreds attended a service Houston’s Muslim community held for Sabika Sheikh, a 17-year-old exchange student from Pakistan who talked about one day becoming a diplomat.
Her host mother, Joleen Cogburn, recalled asking Sheikh why she came to study in the U.S. She said she wanted to learn American culture and to share Pakistani culture with Americans.
‘And I want us to come together and unite,’ she told Cogburn. ‘I don’t know if they know us the way they should.’
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Sheikh continues to be a diplomat ‘because even in her death, she is pulling the relationships between Pakistan and the United States, specifically the Houston area, even closer.’ Her body was to be returned to Karachi.
The shooting suspect, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, has been jailed on capital murder charges.
Santa Fe High School student Jaelyn Cogburn wipes away tears as she speaks about Pakistani exchange student Sabika Sheikh, who lived with her family, and was killed during Friday’s attack at their high school that left 10 people dead
Funeral prayers are offered for Pakistani exchange student Sabika Sheikh, who was killed in the Santa Fe High School shooting on Friday
In their first statement since the massacre, Pagourtzis’ family said Saturday that the bloodshed ‘seems incompatible with the boy we love.’
‘We are as shocked and confused as anyone else by these events,’ said the statement, which offered prayers and condolences to the victims.
Relatives said they remained ‘mostly in the dark about the specifics’ of the attack and shared ‘the public’s hunger for answers.’
Roady declined to answer questions about the shootout and investigation Sunday, including whether police may have hit any students in a gunfight with the shooter.
He also said autopsy reports won’t be released while the case is pending.
Although officials have praised a swift response, it remains unclear just how quickly police got to the art lab on the 1,400-student campus, where authorities say Pagourtzis opened fire with a shotgun and .38-caliber handgun.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, the county’s top administrator, has said police exchanged rounds with Pagourtzis ‘for quite a while’ before he surrendered a half-hour after the first reports of a shooter on campus.
‘They said there was a lot of firepower and a lot of rounds exchanged,’ Henry said.
One Santa Fe school police officer who responded to the attack was shot and remained in critical condition Sunday, according to the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Santa Fe High School student Dakota Shrader is comforted by her mother Susan Davidson following Friday’s shooting
Police officers on Friday are seen working a check point in front of Santa Fe High School
The suspect’s attorney, Nicholas Poehl, said he was investigating whether his client endured any ‘teacher-on-student’ bullying after reading reports of Pagourtzis being mistreated by football coaches.
In an online statement, the school district said it investigated the accusations and ‘confirmed that these reports were untrue.’
Poehl said that there was no history of mental health issues with his client, though there may be ‘some indications of family history.’ He said it was too early to elaborate.