by Jane Rodgers
SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas (BP) — Karla Holcombe, one of 26 victims to die in shootings at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Nov. 5, 2017, walked the lot adjacent to the church often, praying for God to provide a place for expansion. Members said the two-acre tract was too expensive.
“You’re not going to have to buy a church. God is going to give it to us,” Holcombe replied.
“God gave it to us,” Mark Collins said, recalling Holcombe’s story before some 350-400 gathered May 5, 2018, for groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Sutherland Springs facility.
Collins, pastor of Yorktown Baptist Church, served on staff at Sutherland Springs for two decades. Holcombe was a family friend, his children’s youth leader, a good-humored prayer warrior.
The day of groundbreaking started with a prayer walk around the property where a $3 million facility will be constructed with funds from the North American Mission Board (NAMB), other financial gifts and in-kind donations. A GoFundMe account established by San Antonio contractor Brad Beldon provided cash to purchase the lot for which Holcombe had prayed. NAMB chose Myrick, Gurosky and Associates (MG A), a Birmingham, Ala., firm, to oversee the project.
Ted Elmore, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) point person to the church, coordinated the prayer walk at the request of Sutherland Springs pastor Frank Pomeroy. About 50-60 gathered on the sunny morning as the church praise band practiced nearby.
The prayer walk started at the construction site, then proceeded to the former sanctuary, now a memorial. Pomeroy scattered unleavened bread representing the body of Christ, poured juice symbolizing the blood of Christ and poured oil representing the Holy Spirit at both spots. Prayer followed.
The prayer event was an act of asking the Lord to cleanse and consecrate the land where violence had occurred, Elmore explained. Participants proceeded to the property’s boundaries — fenced by plastic construction sheeting — to pray individually.
Fresh from a trip to Washington, D.C., and a tour of the White House with Vice President Pence, the Pomeroys said they were glad to be home for the groundbreaking and prayer walk.
“We purposely picked this date so we could put something good on this anniversary,” exactly six months after the tragedy, Sherri Pomeroy told reporters.
Attendees filled a large open-air tent and sat on white wooden chairs facing a raised stage featuring a trough of dirt behind a row of shovels and hard hats.
“We have prayed this morning,” Sherri opened. “That is what this thing is all about.”
Frank Pomeroy followed his wife, issuing a welcome before introducing NAMB’s Mike Ebert, who prayed and emceed the program.
Ebert, NAMB’s director of public relations, expressed the Southern Baptist entity’s excitement regarding the rebuild. He stressed, as Pomeroy had, that no victims’ or survivors’ funds were being used for the new buildings.
“Today, everything you see was either paid for or donated by others,” Ebert said, praising the “ripple effect through eternity” of the church’s testimony.
Elmore ascended the platform next, bringing greetings from SBTC executive director Jim Richards and introducing Juan Sanchez, convention president, and other SBTC representatives.
Sutherland Springs encountered circumstances similar to those facing the first-century church, Elmore said. “The blood of the martyrs was shed in that room over there where they were worshiping Jesus,” he continued, reminding all that the “church of the Lord Jesus” was built on such blood.
MG A president Scott Gurosky followed Elmore, calling his company’s association with Sutherland Springs inspirational.
“We saw resolute souls and hearts ready to move forward, not back,” Gurosky said, expressing amazement at the project’s rapid progress from “concept to design” in 90 days.
Gurosky said 30 companies had committed to donations and in-kind services for the project. Gurosky confirmed local sub-contractors would be used and that Boerne, Texas, resident Gary Nazaruk had been coaxed out of retirement to become project manager.
Ebert recognized dignitaries, including Wilson County D.A. Audrey Lewis, Sheriff Joe Tackitt and representatives of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar and Sen. John Cornyn, before introducing Wilson County Judge Richard Jackson, who praised the perseverance of the community and church.
Sen. Ted Cruz spoke next, proclaiming, “Glory to God,” reminding all that “181 days ago, this community saw the evil” but also saw strength, sacrifice, courage, passion and love.
“The entire world saw the Gospel,” Cruz added to resounding applause.
Pastor Collins followed the senator, describing his long association with Sutherland Springs and Pomeroy. Collins discussed remembrance, emphasizing from Ephesians that the church must “stand and withstand” adversity “in remembrance of the promises of God.”
Mentioning that Pomeroy’s last sermon before the shootings concerned Proverbs 3:5-6, Collins produced a sign salvaged from the sanctuary, one of 18 framed Bible verses and the only one damaged in the attack. The verse was Proverbs 3:5-6. Collins returned the sign, with new glass, to Pomeroy.
After relating the story of Karla Holcombe’s prayer, Collins presented her son, John, with a crazily-colored tie for Mother’s Day. Karla had always laughed at the tie.
Frank Pomeroy brought a message from Ezekiel 11, explaining that the prophet also lived in turbulent times, which included the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
“We are not the first to experience horrific loss,” Pomeroy said, emphasizing that we must know the “victory is ours” and that “true sanctuary” comes from a relationship with God.
Expressing gratitude to NAMB and MG A plus all who donated, Pomeroy said his vision of Sutherland Springs as a lighthouse prompted a request to MG A for a bell tower.
He got not one tower, but two.
“One is a bell for the memorial; the other is a light for what God is going to do,” Pomeroy said Gurosky told him.
After prayer by Paul Buford, pastor of River Oaks Baptist Church, Ebert called up groups to wield shovels, don hard hats and ceremonially turn over the ground. The first group consisted of survivors and family members of victims.
During worship and baptisms following a barbecue lunch, Kris Workman played guitar in the praise band. Workman, shot point-blank in the spine last November, is wheelchair-bound with a “nearly complete” severing of his L2 vertebrae.
“My condition is not a surprise to God,” Workman told reporters. “This groundbreaking is a pretty incredible thing. It means God is still big.
Still in charge. A benevolent God has taken something meant for evil and turned it for His glory. This building is going to be for His glory.”
Jane Rodgers writes for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
One year ago, Hurricane Harvey had yet to appear on radar.
One year ago, very few people had heard of First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs.
One year ago, a church planter in New Orleans was fighting for his life.
But a lot can happen in a year.
Nobody knows that truth better than pastors. It’s a job that demands dexterity and emotional depth. It’s a role that changes daily, if not hourly, to minister to congregations with diverse needs and widely varied demands.
“A lot can happen in a year” was the theme of the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) 2018 Send Luncheon. Held during the SBC Pastors’ Conference, NAMB aimed to bless pastors with stories of faith, hope and redemption—and a dose of humor.
The capacity-crowd event overflowed from the main room into a live simulcast location as NAMB president Kevin Ezell hosted the luncheon and turned the crowd’s attention to everyday SBC pastors faithfully serving their congregations and communities.
Pastor David Fleming of Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, explained how he led his church to serve the community in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey—even when his own home was flooded and in need of repair. While noting the importance of local ministry and national partnerships, Fleming thanked the SBC family.
“The Church really is on the front lines of ministry in any community. We don’t expect our national partners or even our state partners to be there on day one. That’s the church’s role, and that’s the church’s opportunity. We stepped into that gap first. But to know you guys were coming—to see the resources and the equipment and the organization—to have Southern Baptists come from literally all over the country to help us help our community was such an encouragement. I just want to say thanks on behalf of our church.” He also reported, “Almost 2,500, people mudded out 600 homes in just the first week after Hurricane Harvey…We saw God use that in our community.”
Church planter Justin Haynes of the Refuge Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, shared at last year’s Send Luncheon how important the prayers of fellow SBC churches had been in his battle against cancer. This year, he stood and shared with the crowd of four thousand that he is now cancer free.
“I have my hair back,” Haynes joked. “We greatly appreciate everyone in the convention and the North American Mission Board,” he added with tears in his eyes. “I still think about how you all blessed us.”
In a somber yet hopeful tribute to the ministry of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, pastor Frank Pomeroy, who was met with a standing ovation from the assembled pastors, celebrated the beauty God is making from the ashes in the wake of the November 5, 2017 shooting at the church.
“Though there was pain, evil didn’t win. The Spirit of God was moving here,” said Pomeroy. “Through that trial, He brought victory…I would hope that when people think of Sutherland Springs, they think of Christ. And if everything that happened and everything we do thereafter gets people to focus on Christ, then that’s what it’s all about.”
“I’ve had the privilege of watching you lead…in a crisis that no other pastor in this room or North America has ever led through,” Ezell said to Pomeroy. “You have been an incredible model of leading a church through a crisis while at the same time walking through one personally.”
Pomeroy and Ezell also gave an update on the rebuilding efforts at the church which are being facilitated by NAMB and through private donations.
“When the North American Mission Board approached us and said that they wanted to build us a church, we were just flabbergasted,” said Pomeroy. One of the prominent features of the church building design is two towers. One is to house the church bell—a bell that was regularly rung by children who died in the shooting. On the other end of the building, another tower will shine with a perpetual light to remind the community of the everlasting light of Christ that pierces the darkness.
Surprise guest Beth Moore, in partnership with NAMB and Lifeway, gifted Pomeroy and his wife with a getaway vacation as they continue to heal in the aftermath of tragedy.
Pastor’s son and comedian John Crist rounded out the event with humor and witty observations about churches, congregations and the sometimes eccentric people inside them. Crist closed sincerely thanking pastors.
“It’s a tough, thankless job, so thank you for all that you do,” he said.
IMB president David Platt echoed that sentiment in a statement as the luncheon drew to an end.
“I thank faithful brothers all around this room who are serving in churches that many people will never know the name on that church and may never be on a stage like this one, but I just praise God for His grace, and I just want to exhort you that this is glorifying to God to faithfully shepherd and love His people in the place where He has put you—wherever that is.”
K. Faith Morgan writes for the North American Mission Board.
Published June 12, 2018