Light and Hope Spread in Sutherland Springs

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Roses are placed over chairs in memory of parishioners of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Roses rest on chairs to memorialize the slain parishioners of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS – On a gray, damp Sunday morning, in a community torn by carnage, tears fell and hands rose. Inside a white tent large enough to hold the entire population of Sutherland Springs – less than 600 – music sounded and hymns soared.

Seven days after a gunman opened fire on worshipers at First Baptist Church, a congregation of approximately 50 – before 26 were slain and 20 injured – had multiplied to more than 500.

At 11:15 a.m., one week to the minute after Devin Kelley's murderous rampage began, pastor Frank Pomeroy preached his message to the largest gathering in the 92-year history of First Baptist. Fifteen rows of chairs with 14 seats to a row were filled on both sides of a long aisle. More than 100 people stood in the back and around the perimeter.

Pomeroy shared his favorite Bible verse – “Love never fails” from 1 Corinthians 13:8 – and talked about overcoming evil with good. He did not sound like a pastor who had lost half his congregation on Nov. 5, or like a father who had lost his 14-year-old daughter to a mass killer. He sounded strong and composed, not a crack in his voice, offering encouragement and hope to a congregation in mourning.

“We have the freedom to choose,” Pomeroy said. “And rather than choose darkness like the young man did that day, I say we choose life.”  

Pomeroy spoke near the shining symbol of his faith – a tall, brown cross, illuminated with a strand of white lights. Dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and dark tie, Pomeroy preached about the battle between light and darkness, about losses suffered and victories won.

“Victory has a price,” he said. “You cannot be victorious in battle without being wounded in battle.”

Since the shooting, Pomeroy said, he knows of at least 11 people who have committed their lives to Christ.

One congregant rose and said, “Amen.” Another did the same. A third stood and punched the air, as if to say, “Preach!” A gentleman beside me wiped away tears. Two women in front of me shook and hugged. From one end of the tent to the other, emotion erupted and spilled, unfiltered and raw.

This is how a congregation, a community and an extended family of faith faced the horror of the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history: with prayer and worship and defiant faith. “I do not understand [it],” Pomeroy said. “But God has a plan.”

More than a dozen men on Harley motorcycles rode in from New Braunfels. The wife of an associate pastor came down from Waco. A family that attended First Baptist months ago before relocating arrived from San Antonio. A longtime friend of the pastor drove in from La Vernia. A small number flew in from the East Coast. Pomeroy moved them all.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Christine Carver

“I was surprised,” said Christine Carver, 43, of Waco, “at how much joy he was able to share.”

JoAnn Higdon was not surprised. She and her family have known Pomeroy for five years. When Higdon suffered a car accident, Frank and his wife Sherri ministered to her. When her sister died, the couple provided comfort.

“Our preacher is great,” said Higdon, who recently moved to San Antonio with her family, but considers First Baptist her home church. “Our preacher prayed with us and gave a real nice ceremony for my sister. If we need anything, he’s there. He’s right on it. He’s strong.”

How strong? Though his own heart was broken, he managed to lift hundreds of people. His message brought congregants to their feet and elicited applause.   

Members of the media are granted access to the interior of the First Baptist Church off Sutherland Springs.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Members of the media are granted access to the interior of the First Baptist Church off Sutherland Springs.

A few blocks away, First Baptist was unrecognizable. Blood-stained chairs, pews, and carpet had been removed, the walls and floor painted white. A long-stemmed rose rested on every chair, the name of each victim written in gold. Annabelle Pomeroy’s chair sits in the back. She was 14, the youngest of Frank and Sherri’s seven children.

At the time of the shooting, Frank and Sherri were in Oklahoma. They returned to a town in shock, to people in mourning, to memorials and a vigil, and a community overrun with media. He said he had not read or watched much of the news. But he wanted to open the church to the public, and he intends to lead a service on church grounds next Sunday.  

A community member kneels in front of a vigil along Highway 87 for the 26 people that died inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A community member kneels in front of a vigil along Highway 87 in Sutherland Springs.

“I know everyone who lost their life that day, some of which were my best friends and my daughter,” Frank said. “And I guarantee, without any shadow of a doubt, they are dancing with Jesus today.”

At the end of his message, the pastor’s voice cracked. He raised a tissue to his eyes and many wept with him. The pianist played and as the congregation sang, “Just as I am,” people began to come forward.

A woman buried her head in Frank’s shoulder and sobbed. He brushed away her tears and prayed. A tall, bearded man followed, then a teenage boy in a football jersey. One by one, Frank offered comfort and tender words as the darkness of one Sunday gave way to the light of the next.

10 thoughts on “Light and Hope Spread in Sutherland Springs

  1. What a beautiful article showing how we as Christians stand together in love and outshine any darkness. It is in this kind of coming together and standing with each other in the face of any adversity that we most clearly see Christ and His love for us poured out on a broken and hurting world. Thank you for bravely reporting and clearly showing undefeated and loving pastors at work. There are many, and I am grateful for the ones I worship with weekly!

  2. Ken, What a wonderful piece of reporting. You brought us in to the sermon and did a great job of showing how good over evil will prevail. May God Bless the victims and may they Rest In Peace. God speed to you Ken. Thank you, Your Friend Bob

  3. Ken,
    Beautifully written. Thank you for your words, displaying such a powerful day for the people of Sutherland Springs. No doubt, their Pastor is drawing from strength that is not his own. Powerful.

  4. This was preventable. The shooters family dropped the ball when it came to the threats and intimidation by the shooter towards his family members. Shame on them. In a lot of these mass murders you can trace it back to the family turning a blind eye towards the dangerous behavior. When the smoke clears and time passes there will be a lot of resentment towards Kelley’s family.
    .

  5. Beautiful article, Ken. I think you did a splendid job here. Thank you for taking the time to craft it so well. God bless you, and God bless the people of Sutherland Springs. May the God of all comfort be ever near.

  6. Ken, great work as always. You have the uncanny ability to take the reader right there with you. Thank you for not politicizing the story in any way. Your story highlighted a church body, pastor and a small community that survived through an unimaginable tragedy and were still able to display strength and the power of faith and love. You nailed it! Love does prevail over evil. There are many victims in this horrific event and the shooters family are included in that list. They need our prayers and support as well.

  7. Thank you, Ken, for this beautiful article and for the sensitivity and understanding you demonstrate in it. It made me cry — but these are tears of healing and of gratitude for the comfort Pastor Pomeroy was able to impart.

  8. Apart from the tragedy and the recovery, I would like to say how important art is to healing. Now that this memorial exists, could you image if it didn’t? I urge everyone to consider the value that art brings to the world and support the arts in all its forms.

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