ROSEBURG, Ore. — When pastor Jon Nutter got a text message last Thursday about the shooting at Umpqua Community College and realized how many had been killed or injured, he immediately formed a prayer circle at Starbucks where he was sitting.
He then rushed to open his church in Roseburg to anyone in need of counseling, and drove to the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where officials were reuniting students with family members.
As bus after bus rolled into the fairgrounds on Thursday carrying students, faculty and staff, Nutter and about two dozen other local pastors held uncontrollably crying students, formed prayer circles, listened to eyewitnesses recount the rampage that killed nine and watched tearful reunions with parents and spouses.
The pastors also comforted parents and spouses who waited for the last bus of students. Five hours after the shooting, a dozen remaining family members were ushered into a room at the fairgrounds, said Nutter, who was also in the room. Officials notified them there would be no more buses coming.
"They had been waiting for a long time, hoping, praying," said Nutter, pastor of Hucrest Community Church of God. "People were crying, yelling, some families were angry, others going into denial and shock."
Religious faith is an important part of many people's lives in this rural part of Oregon, called by some "the Bible Belt of Oregon." In Roseburg alone, there are dozens of churches, and Christian billboards and crosses dot area highways and roads.
Pastors are at the forefront of helping victims' families cope with a grief that can seem unbearable.
On Sunday, many pastors were planning to talk about the shooting from their pulpits.
"It's important for us to just listen," said Grant Goins, an associate pastor at Roseburg Alliance Church. "We don't know how to grieve; we want to pretend death is not coming. We tell people it's OK to cry, to give others a hug, to sing Amazing Grace."
Over the past four days, Nutter and the other pastors have organized a web of support for victims' families and the wider community.
Immediately after the shooting, the multi-denominational Douglas County Evangelical Fellowship, a group of about 40 Roseburg-area churches, sprang into action. An ecumenical prayer service took place at a local Catholic church hours after the shooting. Other churches led prayers throughout the weekend. Pastors offered grief counselling at their sanctuaries, the fairgrounds and at a Roseburg nonprofit. They are also preparing for funerals.
On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered at an amphitheater in Winston, near Roseburg, at a Christian concert and prayer service organized by the churches. That same day, dozens gathered at the local courthouse to start 36 hours of prayer and music, organized by an interdenominational church.
Nutter, the pastor who was at the fairgrounds, said his service Sunday will include a question and answer panel of people who were affected by the shooting, including a medical professional and a student who was on lockdown in the library. Nutter said parishioners will also be divided into small groups, to pray for the victims and first responders and share their feelings about the shooting with each other.
"We all have stories. And in telling our stories, we gain perspective on our own interpretation of events," Nutter said "and we can realign with what God's desire for us is."