First Baptist Sutherland Springs dedicates new worship center with “a sound of joy and gladness”

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS  Sherri Pomeroy quoted from Jeremiah 33 to the standing-room-only crowd at First Baptist Sutherland Springs on Sun., May 19: “In this place which you say is a ruin…there will be heard again a sound of joy and gladness” (33:10-11a).

It was a fitting passage, for 18 months after the Nov. 5, 2017, shootings that claimed 26 lives and injured 20, the congregation dedicated its new worship facility with a celebration featuring state and national dignitaries, Southern Baptist leaders, a thousand doughnuts, 600 hamburgers, prayer, praise and remembrance.

The steamy, overcast morning started with a private service before the 11 am dedication. Overflow crowds watched livestreams from both services in the new fellowship hall adjacent to the auditorium. The hall was part of a design addition made two months into the 14-month process, Scott Gurosky of MG&A, the Birmingham, Alabama firm overseeing the construction, later told reporters.

As doors opened for the dedication, Pastor Frank Pomeroy greeted crowds filtering in to the bright auditorium, its white shiplap walls, gabled ceiling and high windows evoking the building it replaced.

Pomeroy assumed the pulpit, only to find his notecards missing.

“That means that the Lord is going to take over and you are going to get preached to instead,” Pomeroy said with a chuckle, expressing hope that the church would be that full every Sunday, drawing the first of many “amens” and bursts of applause.

Referencing Genesis 17, where Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses during battle, Pomeroy commended the special help of two area pastors, asking Kevin Cornelius of FBC Karnes City—his “Hur”—to open in prayer.

Following a rendition of “It Is Well with My Soul” by the church praise team led by survivor Kris Workman, Pomeroy exclaimed, “God brings roses out of the ashes.”

Reminding the audience that they were both celebrating and “remembering those who have paid a price for this incredible facility,” Pomeroy introduced his “Aaron,” Mark Collins, pastor of FBC Yorktown, formerly on staff at Sutherland Springs.

Clad in his trademark George Washington attire, Collins, who frequently portrays the first president, recalled those who “had crossed the veil,” reading aloud the names and ages of the 26 victims, as the refurbished church bell, relocated to its new tower, tolled following each name while the hushed congregation listened.

Karla’s corner

After the Pomeroys returned to the stage, Sherri clarified Collins’ description of the pulpit area as “Karla’s corner,” a reference to the countless times victim Karla Holcombe had prayed that the two-acre weed-filled lot, the site of the new facility, would be given to the church.

“Maybe the very last day [Karla] prayed for this land was on Nov. 5 because her car was parked very close to where I am standing now. Maybe she came early that day and walked the perimeter of this land for the very last time,” Sherri suggested.

“On Karla’s corner now stands a beautiful facility,” Frank said, adding, “The church is not the building. The church is all who have the blood of Jesus Christ within their heart and upon their soul.”

Cooperative Program made it possible

Pomeroy praised the support of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the North American Mission Board, which provided funds for the construction through the SBC’s Cooperative Program giving mechanism.

NAMB President Kevin Ezell, who attended the dedication but did not speak, told the TEXAN in separate comments that the Sutherland Springs project was “an incredible example of how we are stronger together,” adding that NAMB’s part was made possible through the CP thanks to “thousands and thousands of sacrificially-giving Southern Baptists.”

JD Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh/Durham, North Car. and current SBC president, affirmed the CP’s importance.

“When the worst evil and the worst darkness intruded on this small congregation, I am glad but not surprised to say that the best of who Southern Baptists are stepped forward to help,” Greear said, applauding NAMB, the SBC and the SBTC.

“Our world is broken” Greear said, arguing that tragedies such as that of Sutherland Springs will not be prevented by legislation, education or prosperity, but only through Jesus: “Better laws may certainly help us contain the damage, but only the gospel can heal the soul.”

MG&A’s Gurosky spoke next, recalling Pomeroy’s insistence that the new church be a beacon to the community and incorporate the bell. The result: twin towers containing light and bell, respectively, dominate the campus and loom above the town at its highest point.

Gurosky introduced architect Mike O’Kelley, project manager Gary Nazaruk, who came out of retirement in nearby Boerne to oversee the construction, CFO Paul Head and general supervisor Tom Durham.

The project involved “hard work and commitment from people all over the country, from Oregon to Ohio to Alabama,” Gurosky said, mentioning many of the 100 companies that donated materials or services.

Especially rewarding was the construction of the memorial room just off the main entryway, which designer Ivy Schuster opted to keep simple with photographs capturing the victims’ personalities.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a man Pomeroy introduced as “with us from the very first day,” spoke next. Citing several Psalms, Abbott, a paraplegic, expressed empathy with the victims.

“Only God can help a community transcend the type of tragedy that struck Sutherland Springs. Only with God can you as individuals chart a path out of the maze that you have been placed into. There is only one pathway forward. It’s not our path. It is his path,” Abbott said.

“I like it when our governors and senators start preaching at us, don’t you?” Pomeroy asked the congregation following a videotaped message from Sen. Ted Cruz, before introducing Sen. John Cornyn, praising the senator’s help and support of the Fix NICS Act.

Cornyn compared the dedication to the Nov. 12, 2017 FBC Sutherland Springs church service which met in a tent on a nearby ballfield.

“The church is not four walls and a roof. It’s the people. In a stunning building like this or in a tent on a baseball field, this church refuses to quit and let evil win,” Cornyn said.

After victims and dignitaries gathered onstage, Paul Buford, pastor of River Oaks Baptist, whose church served as a command center in the weeks after the shootings, closed in prayer.

Bells, Towers and Beacons

As attendees ventured outside to enjoy hamburgers served by the Texas Farm Bureau, the Pomeroys, Gurosky, and survivors Julie Workman and David Colbath fielded questions from reporters.

Pomeroy confirmed that security measures had been implemented in the new facility. He stressed the significance of the bell, long a hallmark at the church as children surrounded him, hoping to ring the bell each Sunday.

“Many of the children who would ring that bell are no longer with us. Our shooter had the propensity to seek out children. And for that reason, the bell means more now to me than it did previously,” Pomeroy said.

For Workman, who directed the children’s ministry, the bell also evoked poignant memories. “We are survivors. We are left here to tell the story of God’s grace and mercy,” she said.

As for the church as a beacon, attendance has doubled since the shootings, Pomeroy said, estimating that 180-200 now come weekly and more are expected with the additional room. The new church seats 250, Gurosky said.

Asked about plans for the former auditorium, still a memorial filled with white chairs marked by victims’ names and red roses, Pomeroy said plans have not been decided, although the ground will remain hallowed. The church will choose.

“Those people’s lives are the reason we have this church today. They are martyrs,” Colbath told reporters, admitting that he had “accepted the new norm” of pain and physical limitations.

The new normal is what the Pomeroys and their church, in their new home, are ready for as well.

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