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.
“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.
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.
“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.