Julie Workman and her son Kris were enjoying worship service at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs on Nov. 5, 2017, when a gunman entered the church and opened fire.
The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, took the lives of 26 church members and injured 20 others before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound following a chase. Kris Workman was one of the injured, shot in the back. He is paralyzed from the waist down.
The original church building now is a memorial, containing 26 white chairs, each bearing a name of someone who died that day, exactly where they sat.
But next door sits a larger worship center, a brand new home for First Baptist Church (FBC). Until Sunday, congregants had been attending service in a temporary building near the original church.
More than 300 church and community members gathered Sunday morning to worship, pray, remember the shooting victims and to dedicate the new building.
Julie Workman called the new church building proof of miracles in the aftermath of one of the deadliest mass shootings in Texas history. She agreed with church leaders, who said a church is more than just a building.
“It’s exciting to see another miracle that God has set before us,” she added. “My church is the people, but we now have to invite the Holy Spirit into our church so that we can share it with the outside world.”
Pastor Frank Pomeroy was not at FBC that fateful day in November 2017, but his adopted daughter Annabelle, 14, was and died in the attack.
Pomeroy said the community coming together and receiving help to develop a new, larger church showed that, “Although there was tragedy, God grows roses out of the ashes.”
“He brings glory to those who are called to carry out his purpose even if we don’t understand everything that is happening,” Pomeroy added.
The dedication service had its share of people shedding tears, shouting “amen” and standing ovations. There was silence as Mark Collins, senior pastor from First Baptist Church in Yorktown, Texas, read the names of those killed on Nov. 5, while the church bell tolled once for each name, and surviving family members stood when their loved one’s name was read aloud.
The tragedy devastated the rural unincorporated community of Sutherland Springs. The number of dead was a quarter of the average number of people who attended services at FBC.
While surviving church members healed their emotional wounds and the injured recovered, the Sutherland Springs church got help in many different ways.
The North American Mission Board (NAMB), an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), helped to secure a vacant plot of land next to the original church, a tract the church had previously eyed for future growth.
But the church did not have the funds to buy the land outright. Pomeroy and his wife Sherri thought of Karla Holcombe, who frequently walked the weed-covered tract, and prayed that one day the land would be given to the church so it could expand.
Sherri Pomeroy said Holcombe, 23, had parked her car near the property the morning of Nov. 5, only a short time before she was killed in the shooting. She was one of nine Holcombe family members killed that day.
Thanks to NAMB, community members and other supporters donating funds and construction resources, the new worship center was erected on that plot of land, and church members nicknamed it “Karla’s corner.”
“Maybe (Karla) came early that day and walked the perimeter of the land one last time,” Sherri Pomeroy said, adding she believes God was ready to finally answer Holcombe’s prayer. The church did not spend any money on land acquisition.
Alabama-based developer Myrick Gurosky and Associates (MG&A) provided all development, design and construction oversight during the project that took a little more than a year to complete.
The new worship center is designed to seat 250 people, more than double the original building’s seating capacity. The main sanctuary is much larger than the original. A lobby connects the sanctuary with a worship overflow room and a new education center. According to Pomeroy, church membership has grown to more than 200 people in the past year.
A memorial room honors the 26 victims. One new tower houses the church bell; another tower houses a prayer space. The prayer tower emanates a warm light that can be seen for miles at night. FBC now has plans to develop a new playground and a multi-purpose community center.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn were among a few elected officials attending Sunday’s ceremony.
Abbott said God helped the people of Sutherland Springs begin recovering and healing after the shooting, and that God and supporters of the church helped to lay a foundation for a new beginning.
“There was a vision for what was going to be here, but there was no way to connect with that vision,” Abbott said. “Yet here we are in this remarkable church, in and of itself a place of abundance.”
Cornyn echoed Abbott’s sentiment: “But as you know, and you do know, God has a way of surprising us and providing us strength when we need it. That’s what happened that day in this small community.”
Pomeroy and Scott Gurosky, president of MG&A, said the new construction includes security elements, but Pomeroy declined to offer specifics.
Pomeroy said some church members volunteered to be part of a safety response team at the church. Team members are trained to respond to anything from a child receiving a minor injury to injuries suffered in a larger church event.
Speaking with reporters later, Abbott and Cornyn said the State is doing what it can with local governments to prevent mass shootings in the future. They noted there should be a greater focus on mental health treatment.
“It’s about getting families alternatives if their loved one is becoming a danger to themselves and others so they can get the help they need,” Cornyn added.
Regarding security measures, Abbott told reporters Sutherland Springs has “elevated awareness about potential dangers and it has also elevated the way that churches and law enforcement respond to these challenges.”
David Colbath, who was injured in the shooting, said despite the community’s heartbreak, the church membership has been blessed.
“People throughout the world have sent us letters and donations, people have heard about us,” he explained. “As time has gone by, they can see that all we’ve done is praise God.”