“Looking up” in faith, one year after Sutherland Springs attack

By Mike Ebert

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas. – Once members of the news media journey to this small town 35 miles southeast of San Antonio, many leave with something unexpected after spending time with pastor Frank Pomeroy and the church members of First Baptist Sutherland Springs, which lost 26 people in a mass shooting attack one year ago.

“Out of all the shootings I have covered,” one reporter recently told pastor Frank, “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.

One year after a shooting that took the lives of 26 members of First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs, Texas, the congregation met for worship and a special service to commemorate those who died and celebrate what God has done since. North American Mission Board photo by Andrew Pearle.

“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.

Church members, family and friends gathered on Sunday, Nov. 4, at First Baptist Sutherland Springs, Texas, for a special service in the afternoon commemorating the one-year anniversary of a shooting at the church that took the lives of 26 members of the congregation and left 20 injured. The church’s original worship building, pictured at left, now stands as a memorial to those who died. The congregation now meets in a temporary building while a permanent worship center is being constructed. North American Mission Board photo by Andrew Pearle.

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 stayed anchored in the past because the Lord is alive,” said Pomeroy. “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.

Kris Workman, left, and Frank Pomeroy, lead worship during a Sunday morning (Nov. 4) service at First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs, Texas. The church commemorated the one-year anniversary of a shooting that took the lives of 26 members of the congregation and left 20 injured. Workman, who serves as the church’s bivocational worship leader, was injured in the shooting and is paralyzed from the waist down. North American Mission Board photo by Andrew Pearle.

“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.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott spoke Sunday, Nov. 4, at a special service at First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs, Texas, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a shooting at the church that took the lives of 26 members of the congregation and left 20 injured. North American Mission Board photo by Andrew Pearle.

“Our current congregation is a very different mix,” says pastor Frank Pomeroy. “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,” said Pomeroy.

Pomeroy said support from Southern Baptists has been a sustaining presence in the congregation’s progress.

Construction on a new worship center and education building is underway at First Baptist Sutherland Springs, Texas, with completion expected in Spring 2019. On Sunday, Nov. 4, church members and people from surrounding communities marked the one-year anniversary of a shooting that took the lives of 26 members of the congregation and left 20 injured. Photo courtesy of Myrick Gurosky and Associates and North American Mission Board.

“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.”

Mike Ebert is executive director of public relations for the North American Mission Board.

Published November 5, 2018