SUTHERLAND SPRINGS—Once members of the news media journey to Sutherland Springs, Texas, many leave with something unexpected after spending time with First Baptist Church pastor Frank Pomeroy and the congregation, which lost 26 people in a mass shooting attack one year ago.
“Out of all the shootings I have covered,” one reporter recently told Pomeroy, “you are the only ones who are smiling, thriving and moving forward.”
To be sure, there are still many tough days. Sometimes tears come at unexpected moments. But almost from the beginning, the members of this small congregation have demonstrated a remarkably strong faith and have kept an eternal perspective in the middle of their immense sorrow, heartbreak and grief.
“I can only say that this is how God works things when you choose to keep looking up,” Pomeroy said by phone a few days before the Nov. 5 anniversary. “There are a lot of tears and heartache, but the ability to move forward is much easier when you focus on the light and not the darkness.”
In the earliest days after the shooting, Pomeroy — whose 14-year-old daughter Annabelle was among those killed — encouraged his church to “not let the enemy take any ground.” He consistently insisted that Satan not have the victory from that dark day.
“When you keep looking at others and not yourself, you focus on serving others and not what you are going through,” Pomeroy said.
That approach has allowed the church to balance remembering and honoring those who died while at the same time moving forward.
“There’s no reason to stay anchored in the past because the Lord is alive,” Pomeroy said. “As a whole, we are healthy and doing well. I’ve never walked into a church and felt the spirit so strong.”
Hundreds crowded the church property on Sunday (Nov. 4), as the church gathered for special services to remember the 26 who died and to remind survivors and attendees that evil did not win that day. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was among those who addressed the group.
“The horrific shooting that took place here could’ve ripped this community apart — but it didn’t,” Abbott told those gathered. “Instead, you came together and turned to the Lord for strength, guidance and healing.”
On Monday (Nov. 5), the exact anniversary of the shooting, church members, shooting survivors, and loved ones of those who died will gather privately on the property for a more intimate time of prayer and reflection. Part of the time will be spent in the congregation’s new building, which is still being constructed.
“We will light candles,” Pomeroy said. “And each person will be given a Sharpie they can use to write a blessing on a wall or the name of a loved one who died. Those names and words will be a permanent part of our new building. They will always be a presence there.”
Even so, the congregation is also focused on new ministry opportunities and moving forward.
A temporary metal building serves as the current worship center for the nearly 200 who now attend services each week. On the back lot — which a year ago did not even belong to the church — construction of the new, permanent worship center and education building is progressing with an anticipated opening in spring 2019.
“Our current congregation is a very different mix,” Pomeroy says. “Some still struggle with new people stepping up and doing things. Some have trouble with the crowd. Some want a quiet little church again and that’s not where we are anymore.”
Still, among all the change are powerful reminders of that day one year ago. The building where the gunman attacked the then 50-member congregation now stands as a memorial. Painted all in white, it contains 26 chairs, placed exactly where each congregant who died was seated when the shooting started. A single, red rose is placed on each chair, and the name of the victim is written across the top.
Artwork, banners and messages sent from around the world are on display throughout their temporary building as vivid, daily reminders of the innumerable lives touched and hearts moved following the church tragedy. So many gifts have been sent, they can’t all be displayed at the same time.
Pomeroy says one of the best surprises after the tragedy was to see churches of all denominations step forward with help and encouragement.
“I was surprised at how quickly denominational walls came down,” Pomeroy said. “So many offered help. And people from all denominations let us know they were praying.”
Among the worst experiences, he said, was the harassment that came from so-called “truthers” who showed up in town almost immediately accusing Frank, his wife Sherri, and other church members of making up the whole shooting.
“When I first heard about the shooting in Pittsburgh, my heart broke for those people,” Pomeroy said. “It also angered me because I know for the next year they are going to have to put up with these ‘truthers.’ They are going to have to deal with these people telling them it never really happened. I wish I could go up there and put a hedge of protection around them myself,” he said.
Support from Southern Baptists has been a sustaining presence in the congregation’s progress, Pomeroy said.
“We are so appreciative and thankful for the prayers, donations, the new church building. Words can’t express how grateful we are and how much it has helped us in the healing process to know there is a plan ahead,” Pomeroy said.
At its annual fall festival a few days ago, a family that just recently started attending the church told Pomeroy their son was ready to be baptized. The young man joins several dozen who have been baptized and become members in the year since the shooting. This is the most important example of how God is bringing joy from the ashes.
There are other, smaller reminders as well.
“There is fencing up around the church construction site,” Pomeroy shared. “Already, there are buttercups growing along that fencing. It is just one more reminder to me that God can overtake everything.”